Latest from Russia: The murder and the Ukraine Crisis

Latest from Russia: The murder and the Ukraine Crisis

The current scene in Russia is quite chaotic and hectic. On the one hand, Moscow is dealing with the Ukraine crisis. On the other hand, it is shaken with the recent assassination of Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia’s prominent opposition leaders.

In order to understand what is going on in the country, I had an in-depth conversation with Russia’s Consul General to Istanbul, Alexey Erkhov.

We began speaking about the murder of Nemtsov. “It is a very strange story. The Russian government, political parties and Russian society don’t profit from this crime at all. Moreover, he was not a significant political figure anymore. Political interest in democratic and liberal opposition in Russia is close to zero today,” he said.

When I reminded him this murder has been associated by many with the Ukraine conflict, he contented himself with saying Nemtsov had very close relations with Ukraine.

The Russian Consul General thought this murder will be solved soon since “Russia’s investigative authorities are very competent,” and President Vladimir Putin is strongly pushing the investigation.

Then our conversation moved on to the Ukraine crisis. Gazprom, Russia’s giant state-run gas company, declared last week that Ukraine’s prepayment was about to run out and Russia would have to stop shipping gas to Ukraine. This raised concerns that supplies to Europe could be disrupted as well. Upon that, the energy ministers of Russia and Ukraine held emergency talks in Brussels mediated by the European Union early this week.

Erkhov said Ukraine had already paid in advance for some quantity of gas and from next week on it will buy gas on a day-by-day basis. “Russia will not use gas as a weapon.  This is business. If you don’t pay, you don’t get your gas. That was our message,” he said.

He also added that Ukraine is financially in a very difficult situation and has therefore cut down its consumption to the minimum amount ever: 10 million cubic meters per day.

Erkhov said gas transit to Europe was also discussed in Brussels and “there is no danger” on that issue.

He asserted an important development about the Turkish Stream as well. Russia had declared the suspension of the long-planned South Stream project in early December and the foundation of a new pipeline via Turkey, called the “Turkish Stream.” This would transport Russian gas to Europe via Turkey instead of Ukraine.

The Russian General Consul said Russia and the European Commission declared after the Brussels meeting they were “ready to discuss the possibility of Europe buying gas from the new hub in Turkey,” meaning “via the Turkish Stream.”

This is of great importance, since the suspension of the South Stream raised concerns about the relations between Europe and Russia.

Is Russia providing the separatists in eastern Ukraine with arms and troops? “The border between Russia and Ukraine has never been like a state border since it has never been severely protected such as the Russia-China border has. The frontiers have been open. There are no guards either from the Russian or Ukrainian side. So we can’t prevent the transit of people who favor rebels. Combatants and volunteers might have crossed,” he said.

According to Erkhov, rebels have claimed they get most of their weapons from Ukraine. He also blamed the U.S.: “My personal view is that weapons were most probably provided by a NATO member. The U.S. rejected the claim that it supplies arms. But I would easily believe these allegations.”

What about the relations between Turkey and Russia? “I don’t think we have any conflicting interests. The level of our relations is unprecedented. We call it ‘multi-dimensional, advanced cooperation.’ In certain fields like energy, we have achieved the level of strategic cooperation,” he said.

Do the diverging views of the two countries on Syria and Egypt affect the relations? He replied that they may disagree on some issues, and “this is normal.”

Does Russia argue that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stay in power? “No, we never say this. We think it is not up to Russia or anyone else except the Syrian people to decide about Syria’s faith,” he said.

What about Egypt? His remarks largely diverged from Turkey’s standpoint. “History in this part of the world is too complicated. Democratic principles and traditions are being adopted, but national traditions and real situations also need to be taken into consideration. We have to understand the problems of others. The situation in Egypt was very tough and risky and the Egyptian military came out with a solution of theirs,” he said.

 “Life is sometimes much more complicated than our receipts and our advice we give from here and there,” he concluded.