Yakunin Says Answer to Ukraine Lies in Past
Published: July 2, 2014 (Issue # 1818)
SOCHI — Vladimir Yakunin is convinced that Ukraine’s forced amputation from Russia is a triumph for Otto von Bismarck, who plotted the whole thing in the 19th century.
The head of Russia’s giant state rail company is fired up about politics. He might as well be — the U.S., the EU, Canada and Australia have branded him a member of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, frozen his assets and declared him persona non grata over Russia’s behavior in Ukraine.
Yakunin, whose company Russian Railways is the country’s biggest employer with 1.2 million staff, looked relaxed and confident as he sat down around a table with over a dozen international journalists last month at the annual 1520 Strategic Partnership international business forum in Sochi.
As he has done at previous forums, Yakunin, 65, dispensed with the curt, to-the-point remarks he gives to Russian media, opening up to the foreign press to ad lib about Germany’s first chancellor, Ukrainian fascists and Russia’s appetite for new territory.
It was a question from an Estonian journalist about Russian-Estonian rail cooperation that jerked Yakunin from discussion of the Russian rail market into geopolitical fulminations.
Ukraine has been ground zero in a geopolitical tug-of-war since November, when then President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union and chose instead to pursue closer ties with Moscow. Kiev’s central Maidan square immediately filled with protestors outraged that Yanukovych had sold out Ukraine’s European future. A three-month confrontation culminated in snipers firing on protestors. Yanukovych fled and Russia stepped in to defend Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians from the new government — which it branded nationalist and illegitimate — by annexing Crimea and massing troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.
The Estonian journalist raised the concern that exists among the people of Baltic countries that after seizing Crimea from Ukraine in March, Russia could go on to engulf them as well. Mr. Yakunin was asked whether he could dismiss these fears.
Yakunin grew up in Estonia, then one of the Soviet socialist republics. Ironically, the country of Yakunin’s childhood was one of the first to call for his name to be blacklisted.
Hackles raised, Yakunin turned to the subject of international relations with the passion and precision of a veteran scholar, and one who sees Ukraine as a very Russian cultural zone:
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