When discussing a few days ago the dismissal of Mikhail Zurabov, Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine, I expressed bafflement that despite his obvious incompetence Zurabov had been left in such a crucial post for so long.
Here is what I said:
“That it has taken the Russian government this long to sack Zurabov is astonishing. Most Russians would doubtless say that it is because Zurabov has high level patrons within the Russian power structure.”
The reason why Zurabov remained in post for so long has now been made clear, and it has nothing to do with his having any “high level patrons in the Russian power structure”. Quite simply there was no guarantee the Ukrainians would agree to the appointment of any more capable successor.
Since Zurabov was dismissed the Russians have proposed Mikhail Babich as their ambassador to Ukraine. Unlike Zurabov Babich appears to be fully qualified for the role. Babich is a former paratrooper who obviously still has connections to the military. As well as obtaining various civilian degrees he participated as recently as 2005 in higher command courses at Russia’s General Staff Academy. As well as being an elected deputy in Russia’s parliament the State Duma, Babich since December 2011 has been the Presidential Envoy to the Volga Federal District where a significant part of Russia’s defence industry is located. Unlike Zurabov Babich therefore comes across as someone who most definitely would make Moscow’s case in Kiev both forcefully and effectively.
The Ukrainians have however rejected Babich’s appointment, refusing to let him come to Kiev as Russia’s ambassador. Their formal grounds for doing so are unclear. However unofficially the Ukrainians are complaining that Babich’s appointment was discussed publicly in Moscow before Kiev was informed about it, and that this was somehow intended to “humiliate” them.
That there is nothing remotely unusual or uncommon about a country discussing publicly its ambassadorial appointments before foreign governments are informed about them hardly needs explaining. In the US it is the practice.
In truth it seems unlikely the Ukrainians will ever agree to the appointment of any Russian ambassador to Kiev who is even half-ways competent. The Russians surely know this and must have known it all along, which is obviously why they left Zurabov in his post for so long, presumably on the principle that even a bad ambassador is better than none at all. Now that the Russians have however strengthened their diplomatic position through the appointment of the political heavyweight Boris Gryzlov with full plenipotentiary powers to the Minsk Contact Group (Moscow’s main point of contact with the Kiev government) the Russians have obviously decided that Zurabov’s incompetence no longer needs to be tolerated any further, and that they can get by even if they have no actual ambassador in Kiev.
That this is what the Russians have decided has in fact been confirmed by President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. He has confirmed that the Russian government has no intention of proposing anyone but Babich to be Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine. In Peskov’s words:
“It is wrong the agreement regarding Babich has been denied. Various diplomatic procedures of preliminary coordination (are normally performed in a) quiet mode. The Russian side keeps pressing for the known option. We still propose the appointment of a new ambassador. This is our approach to our bilateral relations. At the same time, if the Ukrainian side makes a decision to downscale the level of our relations and thinks it is feasible to have a lower level of diplomatic contacts – it is entirely its own choice. We remain certain that Russia should have an ambassador in Kiev.”
In other words, if Kiev won’t accept Babich as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine, then Moscow will get by without an ambassador in Ukraine, just as Kiev decided some time ago to dispense with having an ambassador in Russia.