In March 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. One month later, pro-Russian forces seized parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern part of the country called the Donbass region. Western nations, including the US, responded by placing targeted economic sanctions against Russia and political sanctions including the removal of Russia from the G8 economic group. Additionally, the US provided assistance to Ukraine to aid in their fighting of a civil war between forces loyal to the government in Kiev and those loyal to the government in Moscow. This war has cost over fourteen thousand lives. What are the roots of the conflict? What are the possibilities of resolution? What role have external powers played in the conflict? Doug Becker spoke with Robert English about the situation in Ukraine.
Robert English is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. English is an expert on Russia and the former USSR and is the author of Russia and the Idea of the West Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Doug Becker: Could you firstly describe what the nature is of the conflict in the Ukraine? Who are the actors and what is at stake?
Robert English: The nature is not what most people think. Ukraine has suddenly become the focus of the news because of the impeachment hearings. There has been a lot of attention and from my point of view, a lot of mistakes, a lot of assumptions because we are not only focused on Ukraine, we are also focused on Washington and so it is a very simplified version of events. I hear again and again that the aid that Trump withheld was vital to the survival of Ukraine, that Ukraine faces an existential threat, that this threat is to the very survival of Ukraine and maybe even the west, it affects US security and certainly NATO. There have been a lot off descriptions that suggest there is a very intense shooting war underway there, that tanks are rolling, and that the aid is there to stop this offensive that threatens Ukraine. And that is simply not true. The intensive fighting was pretty much back in 2014-2015. Since then, by and large, it has been a frozen conflict. So there is shelling intermittently, quite a bit of sniping, people continue to die, but no major movement of any forces. It is a typical frozen conflict and it should be remembered that it is a secessionist conflict. And we do use that term but we don’t stop and think what does it mean? It means that the Donbass region which is united in this breakaway republic are not seeking their advance but to secede. Militarily and geographically that means something different, it means we want to carve off our area and be independent or join to Russia, not go forward.
So why is that important? Well, if you care about what is going on, on the ground, it is important to know that you have probably got it wrong if you are listening to CNN. If you are concerned about the gravity of Trump’s misdeeds in withholding that aid, then you might think that he put the security of the Ukraine at risk. Those weapons are sitting in a warehouse in western Ukraine. You might imagine if the battle was raging, they would be on the frontlines. So my feeling is that I understand why people are so angry at Trump, and believe me, in my opinion, he has done more than enough to be impeached just with the chicanery, but I do think people are exaggerating it because they detest Trump so much. He didn’t put Ukraine on the edge of destruction by withholding this aid.
DB: There have been numerous conflicts in the former Soviet Union where you have these pockets of Russophones because when the borders were originally drawn they were not necessarily drawn with respect to the actual populations. There was also emigration during the Soviet period where you had these large populations of Russophones that are minorities in the new countries but they are majorities within that region. I think of areas like Georgia’s breakaway regions, Moldova, etc. Is that a pretty accurate description of the nature of why there is this breakaway motivation in Ukraine, that the border didn’t reflect the ethnic or linguistic groups within the country?
RE: Yes, you are right. That is a general phenomenon throughout the former Soviet Union, large numbers of people not living in their original state. It didn’t matter when it was the Soviet Union, but now that they have broken away Russians, Ukrainians, Ossetians, it is not that there are Russophones there, they are something else. But you are right, the general phenomenon of a border that was not carefully drawn, didn’t conform to the ethnicity, it didn’t matter when it was one Soviet state, but it now matters very much and people are suddenly minorities. For example, in eastern Estonia, the Russians are not scattered all around, but they live compactly in the eastern part of the country which makes it a problem for two reasons. One is that they don’t assimilate, they maintain a separate identity because they don’t have to change their identity or language, they remain a Russian enclave. And the second reason is because it is adjacent to Russia, it is more possible to think about secession or division when it is bordering the mother country.
DB: What can complicate this is the academic phrase we use for Russophones living abroad that might want to join Russia is “irredentism”. How much of this is who is the tail and who is the dog here? Is it the Russophones who are living in eastern Ukraine who are driving the conflict or is this Moscow driving the conflict? How difficult is it to try to separate those two questions out?
RE: It is not just the two of them. It is all three of them. Let’s take Crimea for example because that is another region that was legally formerly part of Ukraine but has been annexed by Russia. It is partly definitely Moscow inflaming or supporting or encouraging off and on over years. But there is also not just a pull from Moscow but there is a push from Kiev because periodically the Ukrainian governments would tilt in a very nationalistic direction which had a very anti-Russian character and periodically tried to downgrade the Russian language as the official legal language and downgrade other autonomous cultural rights, newspapers, television, schooling. And every time the nationalistic Ukrainian government did that, that was helping push the Russians away. So yeah, pushing from the Kiev side, pulling from Moscow, and then the third aspect has been local ambitious politicians in the region. Even if let’s say a majority of Russians in Crimea were okay with staying in a Ukrainian Crimea because they had a certain autonomy but then along comes a local political party who makes this their issue and stirs up support for secession, promises a better future much like how Montenegro broke away from Serbia. Montenegro and Serbia were like brothers. Their church was the same, everything was the same, they just had slightly different geographic locations and some different customs and history. They were closer than even Russians and Ukrainians but then along comes a pro-independence party. So why does this keep happening when it is manifestly bad for the people to keep breaking up states into smaller states and then conflict takes places and economic problems follow? Well, which would you rather be Doug, would you rather be the unchallenged king of a small country or a lowly prince in a small territory? Everyone wants to be a king. So many benefits come from being the head of a state, from being in charge of the economy, the possibilities for enrichment are enormous. So it was push from Kiev, pull from Moscow, and then ambitious local politicians. These are poor areas so there is always the hunger there to promise people a better life, join with us and independence, breakaway, we will get aid from the west, we will join the EU. They are very fragile states, very weak regions of states.
DB: You mentioned the push from Kiev, and I know one of the motivations in 2014-2015 starting with the referendum and the annexation of Crimea and then the conflicts in the Donbass region was driven partially because of the Euromaidan revolution and the toppling of a leader who had been essentially much more pro-Moscow in Yushchenko and him being replaced by a more pro-European leader in Poroshenko. What is Zelensky? Obviously he defeated Poroshenko but it seems like the election wasn’t as much about foreign policy orientation as it was about corruption in governance? Is that accurate? Is Zelensky looking more to the west or is he looking to Moscow? Is the verdict still out?
RE: I think the verdict is still out. As you might expect with someone who has never been a politician before and is feeling his way, who rode in on this amazing wave of anger and rejection of everything associated with the old elite but who has never even held a mayoralty position or a city council position. He built a program on some very general promises and as best we can tell from opinion polling throughout the campaign and afterwards, all the polling and indicators told us that the number one issue for Ukrainians who voted for him was ending the war in the Donbass, closely followed by corruption. And of course, both of those are closely tied to a general improvement in the economy because the war is sapping. It is not that the war is super expensive being a frozen conflict, it is not massively destructive, and it is not chewing up territory and equipment, but it is blocking development. That part of the country, if it is reintegrated with Ukraine, has a lot of coal, and it has iron, mining, and heavy industry. They build railway cars, turbines, big machinery there, and so the conflict is preventing the economy from getting back on its feet. So when people say they want peace they are also saying we want to get the economy going. So the priorities were ending the war and fighting corruption which is so bad in the Ukraine and that is what elected Zelensky.
As far as foreign policy goes, Poroshenko was pretty nationalist, Poroshenko wouldn’t talk to Putin, Poroshenko said no compromise and look for help where we could get it internationally to support getting back Crimea, keeping sanctions on Russia. Zelensky said something different, he said he would talk to anybody, he said he would sit down with Putin and talk to him, he said he will find compromise, and he didn’t talk much about Crimea, he didn’t take a position. Officially he said Crimea has to be reunited with Ukraine, but practically he is not letting it stand in the way of negotiating on the other issue which is Donbass. And as far as Donbass is concerned, he has taken a step towards a Russian position which is to say we agree on this formula that has been discussed. The formula is: grant autonomy to those regions, roll back all the centralising measures that the previous government took, grant more autonomy, allow them a certain kind of self-rule, and allow for the continuation of the teaching of Russian in schools and all that. In return, Putin, who Zelensky has met, they have had summit meetings which is more than the last five years showed, Putin is committing to pulling out militarily, giving that territory back to Ukraine, restoring Ukrainian territorial sovereignty and relinquishing the border. That is the basic outline of the deal, it has been there all along ever since the first proposal was signed by all parties back in 2015, but implementing it has been difficult. You have got to admit that both sides are to blame. Poroshenko basically did not like the deal; he inherited it from the temporary government, he didn’t take power right after the Euromaidan revolution there was a caretaker government that signed that agreement and he didn’t like it but Ukraine had signed it so he took no action towards fulfilling it. His argument was if we give those regions more autonomy they will just slip away and become really Russian so he held to that position and Putin held to his and kept the military aid there. Some of us had been very hopeful about change, but ever since that phone call and the impeachment hearings it has been kind of scary and kind of sad because there was a peace process underway, Zelensky got elected in May, he got a new parliament and he went to work and resumed these peace talks. And in those last few months, even as we have all been focused on Trump’s extortion of the new government and his bribery, while that has been going on, over there the two sides Russia and Ukraine have begun talking, they have reaffirmed the peace framework, they both toned down the rhetoric a great deal, it has become much less hostile, then they did a troop pullback from the front lines, they did a prisoner exchange, and in October the foreign minister of Germany brokered a signing ceremony where they agreed to an implementation schedule for the next stages and the next stage would be local elections in those Russian areas.
So if you put all that together, that is a peace process, it is a long way from a finished peace but those of us who want to see the conflict end, who watch it closely were hopeful and encouraged. We saw the Europeans working at this; the Germans were basically pressing Ukrainians to split up the duties, and the French were pressing the Russians to work on this issue. So we saw this EU activity and movement on the ground and it was so encouraging and my fear is it has all blown up because of Trump. The American newspapers have not been covering the peace process because we see a different side of Ukraine and so it is a very narrow slice we are looking at, I am not saying what is happening with Trump isn’t important and has to be investigated and gone through– all I am saying is that along the way through our news coverage we get a tiny and incomplete picture of what is really happening in Ukraine.
DB: Certainly the way in which the issue has been framed and how Zelensky’s number one motivation throughout this entire process is to maintain this entire line of support from the US, and you have reiterated that it wasn’t really as much about the weapons themselves as much as perhaps it was a signal that the US was still interested in the conflict, it wasn’t going to leave Kiev to its own devices in terms of Moscow, and I know some of the strongest Ukrainian supporters in some cases and others who had been fairly vocal about this that there has been this recasting, the traditional supporters of Kiev came across both political parties and this whole impeachment process is reshuffling the deck. And so Zelensky doesn’t necessarily know if the US supports him? How far will they go for that support? I mean how complicated is it that Zelensky doesn’t know the alignment of the external powers and in particular the US since what seems to be at stake here, and this was highlighted by Fiona Hill’s testimony that at some level what is at stake here is the way the two political parties are staking this out as Ukraine versus Russia rather than local issues. So it is complicated but can it be put back together?
RE: This country is big but it is really small and like all small countries they want to be on the good side of America. Imagine, if I say something in support of Trump and he is not re-elected, I am screwed with the Democrats. If I say something critical of Trump and say yes I did feel pressured and he gets re-elected then I am really screwed because he is so vindictive. So it is horrible. These games have gone on, small countries get pressured, certainly, in central Europe, we have seen again and again countries tug between Moscow and the west, or even between Germany and France or the Baltic states, there is local squabbling, so it is not new. But for it to heighten up to this level is tremendous, and it is so distressing you feel for Zelensky. But of course, I feel for him especially because he is new and fresh and had some new ideas and was trying to do some good. This wasn’t Poroshenko or the corrupt old parties. They just want to survive Trump. We all do.
Just one more thing. I have so much respect for Fiona Hill as an analyst, as a scholar, and as we saw as a person of rectitude and of integrity who really said it as it was, whether it is about the problems of this administration, the corruption, the lack of integrity, the political interests overriding the national interests, and also when she said conspiracy theories and lies are tearing us apart. But I got to say, “Fiona, you went to work for the liar and conspiracy theorist in chief.” What I mean by that is, that is what Russia does or has done in meddling in US politics. You went to work for a guy who is ten times worse, if we are concerned about the way our politics is becoming so polarised, false narratives, fake news, constant dishonesty, constant conspiracy to the point people are confused, and there is no more reality, then you have got to say, “Trump, Alex Jones, Steve Bannon, the people you went to work for Fiona are the masters of that.” Fiona is such a good specialist because she is so focused on her Russia and east European area, but at the same time, if she had her eyes a little more open she would have noticed things like the Central Park Five and good people in Charlottesville. “The guy you went to work for, he has been spreading lies and division and hatred and false narratives and conspiracy theories for the last five years to get the White House.” I am not picking on Fiona Hill as such, but I am saying I worry about the future of the US and I see as much as there is a Russia threat, there is a threat of cynical interference and sowing division, and most of that is homegrown.
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