CNN speaks with Fareed about the latest developments in Ukraine, the U.S. and EU efforts to find an "off ramp" for Vladimir Putin, and why a political solution is essential. This is an edited version of the transcript.
What do you make of the U.S. talk about deescalating the crisis and reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is working to try to figure out a way off, a kind of a ramp-off for Vladimir Putin?
The way the Russians have handled this is brutish and thuggish. Men in ski masks coming in taking over an area using military force – obviously, that is totally unacceptable. It has to be deterred. But there is a political crisis in Crimea and in Ukraine that requires some kind of solution where Russia is going to be involved.
In Kiev, you had an elected president who was deposed by a kind of mass movement against him. Now, it has to be figured out how that country moves forward since it's still living in the shadow of Russia. Crimea has a 60 percent Russian population. Historically part of Russia, it was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 and is the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet.
So, how are those things going to be resolved? There's no way to keep Russia out of it, so what I think President Obama is trying to figure is that although the way in which Russia handled this – militarily and stealthy and frankly in violation of international law – has to be condemned and opposed, you get to the question of how do you politically resolve this in a lasting fashion, as Russia is going to have to be involved.
If look at the geography, no matter what the United States and European Union promise Ukraine – right now it's a billion dollars in loan guarantees – the geography guarantees that Ukraine has to deal with Russia. It's where they get their gas from, where the exports go. That's something that is unavoidable.
It goes even deeper than that. We think about Russia and how the Soviet Union has crumbled, and all these countries have gone free. And we put Ukraine in that category. Ukraine was not just part of the Soviet Union, which is a 75-year period. Ukraine is part of the Russian empire for 300 years. Crimea has been part of the Russian empire for 200 years.
And as you say, the gas lines crisscross through Ukraine. All Ukraine's industry is, to put it crudely, in the pro-Russian eastern half of Ukraine. So, were there to be trouble, secessionist movements, Ukraine would not be viable as a state without Russia's encouragement. And also, we don't want to rush Ukraine out of Russian control and make it have to live in a hostile relationship with its neighbor. We want Russia invested in Ukraine's success. And by the way, there's a $15 billion tab that someone's going to have to pay, and so it might as well be all parties involved here.
What should we make about the reality of Putin and how we should deal with it?
Well he is, I think as Bill Clinton said, a tough guy. I've had a few chances to meet with him in very small groups. And he is, when it comes to process, very intelligent, very tough, and has a deep sense of a Russian nationalism, a deep sense of the greatness of Russia if you will – Russian exceptionalism.
So I think that you're dealing with somebody with whom you cannot make appeals to international norms and laws – that these things are not going to be as important. It’s brutal understanding of Russia's interest. And I think that the "off ramp" that we might find lies in what Putin said in his press conference. The most important thing he said in that long, rambling press conference was that he does not intend to annex Crimea. He said that after the final question was, is Crimea going to become part of Russia? And he said no, we want to leave it up to the people of Crimea to determine their future. So what that suggests is he's thinking some kind of referendum. Now, the Ukrainians may have some ideas. The Ukrainian constitution only allows for a referendum for the whole country. So, all Ukrainians would have to decide whether Crimea can be either independent or part of Russia or autonomous within Ukraine. But it’s there you'll begin to see the possibility of some kind of political solution.
If Putin dismisses the notion of force, then you can have a serious conversation about the political future because it is a complicated situation. As I said, Crimea was historically part of Russia. From all accounts, the majority would rather be in Russia, or at least are not particularly happy with Ukraine. So, all those things can be discussed. But I think that the key is the trust that there is a serious negotiation in which nobody is going to use force to create facts on the ground that cannot be changed.
Look, all nations have interests and they have interests outside their borders. But the fundamental problem Putin is facing, which we did not face in incidents like Panama, is that the people of Ukraine by in large don't want to be dominated by Russia. And the real movers, the real actors in the story are not Washington and Obama, or not Putin who has done some kind of power play. This is the way we describe it all. The heroes of the story are the Ukrainian people who took to the streets, overturned the government which they thought had become a vassal of Russia's, and are trying to make a modern democratic, liberal future for themselves. That's the problem here. And what Putin is trying to do is to arrest that course of history. It’s very different from going in temporarily to secure the Panama Canal, or to get rid of a bad guy like Noriega. Panama is today a thriving democracy, and has had anti-American politicians run it.
Look at Nicaragua. I would hope that the lesson of the 20th century, surely, is that holding on to little pieces of land and warm-water ports is not how you make a great nation. The way you make a great nation is to raise the standards of living of your people. Putin is presiding over an oil kleptocracy in Russia that has ruined the lives of his people, but he's got Crimea through force. And remember in Crimea it’s still only 60 percent of the population that is Russian – 15 percent are Muslims, the so called Crimean Tatars. I don't think they're looking at the prospect of Russian domination with any great joy.