US Envoy: Russian Stance on Crimea Shows ‘More Imagination Than Tolstoy’

By Patrick Goodenough | March 20, 2014 | 4:19 AM EDT

Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin waits for the start of a U.N. Security Council meeting on the crisis in Ukraine, in New York on Wednesday March 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

( – A U.N. Security Council session Wednesday on the crisis in Crimea witnessed strong exchanges, with Russia’s representative protesting language used by his American counterpart, and warning that Moscow’s cooperation “on other issues” before the council could be at risk.

After Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin extolled Sunday’s referendum in Crimea and described the Ukrainian region’s “reunification” with Russia on Tuesday as the righting of a historic wrong, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power disagreed.

Noting Churkin’s claims that the referendum had taken place without any outside interference, Power said, “Russia is known for its literary greatness – and what you just heard from the Russian ambassador showed more imagination than Tolstoy or Chekhov. Russia has decided, it seems, to rewrite its borders, but it cannot rewrite the facts.”

“The United States rejects Russia’s military intervention and land grab in Crimea,” Power continued. “These actions, again, violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Russia’s own binding agreements, international law, the expressed will of most members of this council, and the letter and spirit of the United Nations Charter.”

Towards the end of her statement, Power said that simply because the referendum had taken place, that did not mean Crimea’s national and international legal status had changed.

“A thief can steal property, but that does not confer the right of ownership on the thief,” she said.

Churkin later hit back at what he called the “excessive” remarks.

“Madam Power started with a reference to Tolstoy and Chekhov and finished by having let herself down to the level of tabloid press,” he said – the latter an apparent reference to the “thief” comment.

“It is simply unacceptable to listen to these insults addressed to our country,” he said. “If the delegation of the United States of America expects our cooperation in the Security Council on other issues, then Madam Power must understand this quite clearly.”

The most pressing “other issues” on which Russia’s cooperation in the council would likely be sought in the coming months include efforts to resolve the drawn-out standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, and to negotiate an end to Syria’s three year-old civil war.

Russia has already warned that its cooperation in the Iran talks may suffer because of West’s response to the Ukraine/Crimea situation.

The scope of past Russian cooperation on both Iran and Syria has been far from satisfactory, from the point of view of Western council members.

The only resolutions it has not vetoed, or killed by threatening to veto, have been those which it first watered down significantly. They include a June 2010 resolution imposing sanctions on Tehran, which crucially did not target Tehran’s energy sector; and last September’s resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons, which Moscow insisted contain no direct enforcement mechanism, or automatic penalties for non-compliance.

Wednesday was not the first time the administration has invoked a Russian literary reference in its response to the Ukraine crisis.

A March 5 State Department fact sheet provocatively entitled “President Putin's Fiction: 10 False Claims about Ukraine” began with a mention of the 19th century writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

“As Russia spins a false narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine, the world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘The formula “two plus two equals five” is not without its attractions,’ ” the fact sheet stated.

At the time a column in the pro-Kremlin website responded by mocking the State Department for referring to Dostoyevsky.

“Why didn’t they mention ‘1984’ by George Orwell? In that work, ‘two plus two equals five’ reads a lot more convincing,” it said.

“Fyodor Dostoyevsky is, of course, a genius,” said. “However, assertion ‘the world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky’ is highly debatable. What about Leo Tolstoy or Anton Chekhov? Haven’t U.S. officials found good quotes from their works?”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow