A top deputy in Russia's parliament said Tuesday that Russia and the West were now involved in a "war without weapons," singling out Canada for special criticism because of its tough line towards Moscow and its loud support for the new government in Ukraine.
Alexander Romanovich, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's parliament, the Duma, told The Globe and Mail that no Western sanctions would convince Russia to relinquish Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine on March 18 following a controversial referendum among the peninsula's two million residents. "We will never give up Crimea," he said. "Crimea is Russia."
Like other Russian government officials, he dismissed the Group of Seven's decision to suspend co-operation with Russia as unimportant since the G8 had long since been eclipsed in importance by the G20, where he said Russia's position is supported by emerging powers such as China, Turkey, South Africa and Brazil.
Mr. Romanovich accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government of being "not sensible" in its reaction to events in Ukraine and Crimea because of the influence of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, as well as Ottawa's fears that the Crimean referendum would provide inspiration for separatists in Quebec.
Canada has imposed sanctions on 14 Russian politicians and businessmen, as well as ending military co-operation with Russia and recalling Canada's ambassador from Moscow. Mr. Harper this weekend became the first G7 leader to visit the new government in Kiev, which the Kremlin has refused to recognize as legitimate, claiming it was installed in a Western-backed coup.
On Monday, Russia retaliated by banning 13 Canadians from travelling to Russia, including politicians, senior civil servants and the head of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress.
Mr. Romanovich suggested that Canada had no legitimate reason to get involved in the affairs of Ukraine. "Where is Canada? Over there," he said, pointing to a wall at the far end of a British-style pub near the Duma building in central Moscow. "And where is Russia? Where is Ukraine?" Mr. Romanovich continued, pointing at two adjacent spots on the wall beside him.
Mr. Romanovich said Canada's actions in response to the Crimea crisis were unnecessarily provocative, and that Russia would match each round of sanctions with new measures of its own.
"Our relations with Canada are not just unconstructive, they're poor… Canada stopped military relations with Russia, and so one or two people who were over there teaching got sent home. It's ridiculous," he said, speaking almost-fluent French. "These sanctions are a way of waging war without weapons. To use sanctions is to be belligerent."
The impact sanctions are having in Russia is unclear at this point. Political analysts say they actually play into Mr. Putin's hands since they help him justify a crackdown on domestic dissent as he strengthens his grip on the country in preparation for a period of prolonged confrontation with the West.
But economists and pollsters question whether Mr. Putin's popularity – now a sky-high 76 per cent following his seizure of Crimea – would survive an economic crisis spurred on by the country's increasing isolation.
"None of the sanctions we've seen so far were not planned for by Putin, were not calculated in advance, especially the [cancellation of] the G-8 summit in Sochi," said Nikolai Petrov, a professor of politics at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.
Prof. Petrov said the sanctions were boosting the Kremlin's effort to tighten its control over the country's business elite. Since returning to the presidency in 2012, Mr. Putin has been pressuring rich officials and oligarchs to repatriate their money and assets from abroad.
"He's using the West to close the political system and make it look more like a besieged fortress, thus consolidating Putin's control over the elites," Prof. Petrov said.
The Kremlin, he said, knows a prolonged confrontation with the West could damage Russia's already fragile economy, creating conditions for social unrest. In preparation, the Kremlin has also begun squeezing the country's demoralized political opposition and its few remaining independent media outlets.
Natalia Orlova, the chief economist at Alfa Bank, Russia's largest private commercial bank, said sanctions have thus far had a "very limited" impact on the overall economy, but she worried the political atmosphere would cause foreign investors to avoid Russia, potentially pushing the country towards recession. The economy was already struggling before the Crimea crisis, she said, with gross domestic product growing just 1.3 per cent in 2013.
"The worst would be some unannounced economic sanctions, that EU banks or U.S. banks would be advised not to develop their businesses in Russia," Ms. Orlova said. "The risks and implications of these unofficial sanctions are much worse [than the announced measures]. They're unpredictable – we don't know what's happening – and the impact could be much, much deeper."
Prof. Petrov said that if Russia's economy starts to suffer it will threaten the unofficial pact between the Kremlin and the Mr. Putin's support base. The majority of Russians have silently backed Mr. Putin's growing authoritarianism over the past 15 years because – until recently – he was also delivering an improving standard of living.
Mr. Romanovich said Russia and the West were now locked in a struggle akin to the Cold War, one that will continue to play out in Ukraine. He denied a suggestion from the senior commander of NATO that Russia was preparing next to annex the Trans-Dniester, a breakaway Russian-speaking region of Moldova, just west of Ukraine.
But he wouldn't rule out Moscow supporting pro-Russian separatists in the east and south of Ukraine, where thousands of protesters have called for their own referendum on joining Russia.
"The crisis is not over. Even if Ukraine has signed [an association agreement] with the EU, it's not over. We have to see what happens in Kiev," he said, referring to May 25 elections in Ukraine. "I can frankly say that there is no plan to intervene in [the east and south of Ukraine]. But there was no plan to intervene in Crimea, I can tell you that frankly too. It was the circumstances that brought it on."
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