Crisis in Ukraine: A Voice from Kiev, January 31, 2014

Feb 3, 2014

What is the likely outcome of the violent clashes in Ukraine? Does the U.S. and the West have a moral imperative to intervene and, if so, how? Speaking from Kiev, Dr. Andreas Umland assesses the situation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council. Today's Global Security Bulletin will deal with the crisis in Ukraine. We'll be speaking with Professor Andreas Umland, direct from Kiev.

Dr. Umland is associate professor of European studies in the department of political science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. I would also add that Andreas is also one of our distinguished scholars in our ongoing project in the far-right movements in Europe.

Andreas, welcome again, by telephone, to the Carnegie Council.

ANDREAS UMLAND: Thank you, David. Thanks for having me.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let's just get to the main point here, and that is the fact that this is a fast-breaking and evolving situation, it seems, at least from here, Andreas. There seems to be a new banner headline every day, most recently that President Yanukovych is reportedly in ill health and on, quote, "sick leave."

What is the situation, from your vantage point, at this moment?

ANDREAS UMLAND: It's difficult to say so far, because we don't know what the end result of all of this is. There's definitely a transition going on, a transformation. It may be even a revolution. But the revolution, so to say, is not yet over. Indeed, the situation is changing every day. It's very difficult even to predict what will happen next week.

My feeling is that the regime is in decline and that we might be observing the last weeks, maybe even the last days, of Yanukovych's rule.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Former president Kravchuk the other day said: "All the world acknowledges and Ukraine acknowledges that the state is on the brink of civil war."

Is that excessive or, in your opinion, accurate?

ANDREAS UMLAND: It depends on what you mean by that. There is already a sort of civil war going on in Kiev, which is without guns, without metallic ammunition. But there are skirmishes. There are confrontations between special police units and demonstrators. And there are similar scenes in other cities of Ukraine. So this could be classified already as a sort of semi-civil war.

But on the other hand, I don't think this will become anything like Syria, a real civil war. This is a European nation that had a relatively peaceful development after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and while there might be these confrontations between government-appointed thugs and demonstrators all across Ukraine, I don't think this will come down to civil war.

There is another danger, though, of separatism and of Russian-dominated regions like the peninsula of Crimea and the Black Sea trying to get away from Ukraine and trying to join Russia. Then it could be, in the worst-case scenario, not just a civil war between the separatist regions and the central government, but even a war that would involve Russia, Russian troops, perhaps, as we had in Georgia in 2008, when conflict between a separatist region in the southern Caucasian republic—namely, the region of South Ossetia—then became a full-scale, short-term war between Georgia and Russia.

I wouldn't exclude something like that here in Ukraine, but I hope we can avoid that.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes, that raises an important question. In the beginning at least of this round of protests, it was somewhat similar to the situation in Russia a year or so ago when the protests were really confined to Moscow and we were told not to look at this as a sort of pan-Russian phenomenon. What you're saying now is that what began in Kiev has now spread throughout the country. Are there demonstrations in the east, which, of course, is more inclined to listen to Moscow, and in Crimea? Are the demonstrations genuinely across the country?

ANDREAS UMLAND: I wouldn't make such a sharp distinction in terms of the quality of the protests in Russia and in Ukraine. There were also protests outside Moscow going on during these times when we heard a lot about the demonstrations in Moscow. The difference maybe to Ukraine today is not so much the quality of the demonstrations, but the quantity of the demonstrators. We have many more people here on the streets than we had back then in Russia on Moscow streets. Moscow is a far larger city than Kiev, but it brought out not nearly as many people as Kiev.

The situation is indeed now such that the protests are also spreading toward southern and eastern Ukraine, which is quite extraordinary, because the classical support for the pro-European/pro-Western cause is in central Ukraine, especially in Kiev, and in western Ukraine. What happened there over the last two months was almost predictable. It was clear that these regions would very strongly come out for the EU integration course.

But now we have also protests going on in Odessa, in Dnipropetrovsk, in Kharkiv. These are cities that are in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. But their people, too, are unhappy about the regime. They may not be as clearly oriented towards the West and the European Union, but they also want the regime to change, to become less corrupt, to have a rule of law.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Now, of course, from Yanukovych's point of view, concessions have been made—the resignation of the government and the hard-line prime minister Azarov, who dubbed the protesters, of course, as terrorists; the invitation of opposition leaders into government leadership positions; the revoking of the anti-protest law. But the opposition is holding fast to demands for Yanukovych's resignation or immediate call for elections. Is that true?

ANDREAS UMLAND: That is the major story now in much of the Western media, but I don't think it really reflects the situation here on the ground. The only concession that really has been made so far is the revocation of the laws of January 16 which transformed Ukraine into an officially authoritarian state because they limited civil rights in a rather blatant way. So these laws have been revoked.

But on the other side, there are a lot of other worrying developments here. We have something that we have not even observed in Belarus and in Russia. We have government-organized thugs who are, across the country, beating up people, kidnapping them. Sometimes people get killed also. We have also kidnappings from hospitals. This is the sort of escalation that goes beyond whatever happened in Russia or Belarus, that these sort of informal, semi-criminal groups are employed by the government to intimidate the opposition.

There was no real substantive change in government. There is a new acting prime minister, but the new acting prime minister is just a friend of Yanukovych's son. We had this older prime minister by the name of Azarov before, who was indeed very unpopular. But the new one is also not particularly popular. He's younger. He seems to be more reform-oriented. But this is clearly not a change of course.

The demonstrators here want Yanukovych to go. That's their main demand.

DAVID SPEEDIE: But just by way of clarification, the invitation to opposition leaders like Klitschko and Yatsenyuk into leadership positions, was that something that they knew would not be accepted—and indeed was not—by those individuals?

ANDREAS UMLAND: It has been interpreted here largely as an attempt by the regime to split the opposition. There's a third opposition party, a nationalist party, which was not invited into government.

Anyway, for the opposition members, it would have made absolutely no sense to go into a government in the framework of a super-presidential political system, where the president, Yanukovych, controls policies and positions and posts and ministries, and is inviting opposition ministers whom he can throw out any time he wants.

That was not a serious proposal. I think everybody knew immediately that this was just a maneuver of the regime.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You just mentioned, Andreas, the government, if not sponsored, at least supported the band of thugs who were attacking demonstrators. What about the other side, these rather sinister-sounding ultra-nationalist groups—or so they seem—like, I believe, Common Cause, Right Sector, and, of course, Svoboda. I think you mentioned in passing Mr. Tyahnybok.

What about this violence that's being engendered and carried out from the other side? There seem to be agents provocateurs among the protesters themselves, in a quite serious way.

ANDREAS UMLAND: This is a complicated issue, which I think is also misrepresented in much of Western media. First of all, one has to distinguish between the violent and the non-violent part of the resistance. One of the nationalist parties, the parliamentary nationalist parties, Svoboda, or the Freedom Party, of Oleh Tyahnybok is actually against violence. It's part of this opposition coalition with two democratic parties. So they should be actually disassociated from the violent part.

In the violent part of the resistance, there are indeed right-wing extremist groups. They play a prominent role, it seems, but in fact they are only a part of this violent protest, which consists of frustrated demonstrators, left-wing radicals, right-wing radicals, hooligans, soccer fans, and a broad range of people, among them also some right-wing radicals.

Common Cause is, as far as I know, not a right radical grouping. There was actually a rather strange conflict here. Common Cause, which is a grouping that uses violence, was then restrained by the nationalist Freedom Party, which tried to restrain the actions of this Common Cause group, which presents itself as a pro-European liberal course.

So it's a very complicated picture. The right-wing radicals are certainly in there. But the outbreak of violence here on the side of the demonstrators has far less to do with right-wing radicals than people assume. It has much more to do with the application of large-scale violence by the side of the government and the frustration of the peaceful demonstrators that they have not reached anything during two months of demonstrations.

DAVID SPEEDIE: How is this affecting ordinarily Ukrainians on a daily basis? One hears anecdotally of people not being able to withdraw cash from banks, other basic daily impediments. What's happening on the street, as it were?

ANDREAS UMLAND: That's difficult to say because I don't have a full picture of what's happening in the provincial towns. I only know the situation here in Kiev a little bit. Here I would say that the picture is such that there is a part of the city center that is clearly in this sort of quasi-civil war-like situation, without guns. There have been guns used, but only occasionally.

However, the rest of the city basically lives its own life as it used to be. Most of the time public transportation is working, there is normal traffic, the shops are working, outside these streets where the confrontation is. The situation is also such that we had these violent clashes, but right now, for instance, there is no violence. In fact, the Euromaidan at the barricades, they have become a sort of tourist attraction for the people, for now.

We don't know whether this comparatively peaceful period now may end again.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On the question of outside interference or engagement, Andreas, you mentioned in passing the possibly rather dire scenario of a repeat of the 2008 war with Georgia. As far as the West is concerned, there have been accusations from Ukraine and indeed from within Europe itself of pusillanimous inaction on the part of the West. President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel have offered sort of anodyne expressions of support. Merkel said that the Ukrainian protesters are fighting for the same values that guide us, the EU, and that is why they have to be listened to.

What can/should the West do? Is there an ethical imperative at this point for the West to intervene? Sanctions against the leadership have been mooted as one option. What do you think of that?

ANDREAS UMLAND: I think the main responsibility here lies less with the U.S. and Canada, but with the European Union. One has to distinguish here, I think, three things.

The major discussion that we have on the surface here in Western and also Ukrainian media is about sanctions against leaders of the Ukrainian government. As far as I know, there have been sanctions introduced, travel bans by the United States and Canada, but not yet by the European Union. The European Union argues, as far as I understand, that they are considering sanctions, but so far they don't want to introduce them because they want to have a channel of communication with the leadership, and if they introduce sanctions against the current Ukrainian leadership, this will make mediation, moderation of the conflict in Ukraine here more difficult.

To a certain extent, I buy this argument. However, the civil society here in Ukraine—what they are asking from the European Union are not sanctions against the government members, but simply the application of criminal law against criminal activities by the members of the current Ukrainian government in EU countries. The civil society here argues that the government members are laundering corruption money in the EU, and the EU does not take sufficient action against that, but lets this happen. The banks let this happen because they profit from this money-laundering in EU countries—for instance, in Austria. Austria has now become a major target here for the civil society because a number of Ukrainian illegal businesses seem to go through Austria.

The third factor is, finally, the issue of what the EU could do in a possible conflict between Ukraine and Russia, for instance, about separatist tendencies on Crimea or in the Donbas in the industrial east Ukrainian region. Here the odd thing is that the current protests in Ukraine were started by the association process of the EU, the Eastern Partnership. This was the occasion which brought the people first on the streets. That's why the Independence Square is now called the Euromaidan, the European Square.

Russia is very unhappy about that. Russia does not want the association agreement signed between the European Union and Ukraine, and has threatened sanctions. It has already also imposed short-term and partial sanctions to illustrate what it would do if the association agreement is signed.

The odd thing about this whole story is that the largest trading partner—by far largest trading partner—of Russia is no other entity than the European Union. Around 50 percent of the Russian foreign trade is with the countries of the European Union, and about three-fourths of the foreign investment into Russia comes from the European Union. There is an obvious demand here from Ukraine that since this whole conflict is about EU policy, the EU association agreement, the EU Eastern Partnership, the EU should also, in its relations with Russia, use its power to prevent sabotage of the EU policies in Ukraine, for instance—but not only in Ukraine; also in the southern Caucasus, in Moldova—and use its economic weight to prevent Russia from disturbing here a Europeanization of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thinking ahead, if one may, Andreas, beyond the immediate critical situation, the question would be, after Yanukovych, whose days do seem to be numbered, after him, who? Yatsenyuk, Klitschko? It may seem odd to have a former boxer running for president, but we in the United States once had a professional wrestler as governor of a state. So we won't take any sort of moral high ground on that.

Then I'll just press you a little bit on Svoboda. The leader, Tyahnybok, was once quoted as referring to a "Moscow Jewish mafia" running Ukraine, which seems a little bit inflammatory, at least to these ears.

And Tymoshenko, of course, is still in prison.

What do you see as the prospects for future leadership and a way out of this immediate crisis?

ANDREAS UMLAND: If one looks at the polling numbers, it seems that clearly Vitali Klitschko would be the most prospective leader. The last polling numbers I've read from December were such that he would win in a second round against Yanukovych, with the largest margin. He is also a politician who has relatively significant electorates in all parts of Ukraine. Most other prominent politicians, from the communists to the nationalists, have a regionally concentrated electorate. Klitschko's electorate is also largely in western and central Ukraine, but he also has considerable electoral support in southern and eastern Ukraine. So he would be the most prospective.

I also wouldn't compare him to unqualified politicians from other countries. Maybe somebody like Schwarzenegger or even Ronald Reagan would actually come to mind—so to say, people who are not from politics, but who then become arguably more or less professional and successful politicians. I don't want to evaluate Schwarzenegger or Reagan, but I don't think it makes sense to see Klitschko just as a sort of primitive sportsman. He has a Ph.D. He is clearly not yet a fully professional politician, but that may be actually an advantage.

That said, my feeling is that the whole question about leadership and about persons is actually now losing importance here. People start more and more to talk about the constitution, about policies, about what is to be done. This entire discourse about who is going to be our savior, who is going to lead us into the European Union, I think is losing salience and significance, which is, I think, encouraging, that people are not associating the future of their country anymore so much with certain persons.

About Svoboda, yes, this is indeed a somewhat problematic party of the opposition coalition. First of all, one has to say that in the last opinion polls that I read, Svoboda has electoral support between 5 and 6 percent. It is an integral part now of the opposition here, but it's not its most important part, and Tyahnybok is clearly no serious presidential candidate.

There was also a development in the party. When the party went into Parliament in 2012, with 10.4 percent, there was a paradoxical situation. According to the opinion polls, more than half of the voters for Svoboda did not actually support the ideology of Svoboda. They were voting for Svoboda out of protest, out of strategic reasons, out of tactical reasons. Much of the electorate of Svoboda seems to consist simply of people who wanted to have a disciplined party in Parliament, where the deputies would not run away from the faction, as happened with the democrats, which would put up a fight against Yanukovych.

The high results of Svoboda in the 2012 parliamentary elections were clearly a response to the disputed policies—foreign policies, domestic policies, cultural policies—of Yanukovych, which many people did not like. People thought that Yanukovych was threatening the independence of Ukraine and the European integration. Then people voted for Svoboda because they wanted to have an as-radically-as-possible anti-Yanukovych party in the Parliament.

That has, in the aftermath, led to a development, I think, within Svoboda. We don't yet know where this development will end and whether Svoboda will transform or not. But my observation is that the leaders of Svoboda have tried to sort of keep this non-extremist electorate that they got in 2012. They have now a rather broadly spread electorate. They have become more moderate.

They are a quite extraordinary party in the context of the European radical right as a whole, because they are pro-EU, they are in favor of the European Union, and they want Ukraine to join both the European Union and NATO. As you probably know, most of the other central and west European radical right-wing parties are against the European Union. Many of them are anti-American, against NATO. But Svoboda is not.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That is interesting. On the one hand, as you say, other European far-right parties have this sort of tactical rather than full-fledged ideological support of an electorate that's a protest vote, as it were. On the other hand, I would also say that many of them, while anti-EU, anti-NATO, and so on, are also cultivating this more respectable image in order to gain electoral ground. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds.

One last question, Andreas. I just want to mention that about 18 years ago, an American political scientist wrote a book—you probably know of it—Sherm Garnett's Keystone in the Arch, about Ukraine. It's an evocative title. The very term "keystone" points to Ukraine's pivotal geostrategic position in the world, in Europe and so on. But he quoted the historian Michael Hrushevsky, who said, "If present events do not bring about a solution, Ukraine will remain a source of new convulsions."

That was written years ago, but it seems to pertain somewhat today. Is it still the case that Ukraine at this point may not fit comfortably either into the West or into a sphere in its neighborhood, that Ukraine still finds itself something of an outsider, or are there more, perhaps, favorable days ahead?

ANDREAS UMLAND: That's, I guess, a question about the future, and I don't know the future. I know only the past. The past was such that the last 20 or even 25 years of late Soviet and post-Soviet Ukrainian development were not particularly successful, but they were also, until recently, surprisingly peaceful. So while we had wars in central Asia, in the southern Caucasus, in the northern Caucasus, in Moldova, in Yugoslavia, this country has remained always peaceful. There were the conflicts in Parliament where people were beating each other. But given the depth of the crisis that we were observing here over the last quarter of a century, the peacefulness of the development of Ukraine until recently was rather surprising.

I'm not sure one can talk about today's events in terms of the sort of determinism, that Ukraine's destiny is somehow to be torn apart or something like that. The turn towards violence during the last two weeks was a very specific situation. It was provoked by very specific policies that could, under other circumstances, have been avoided. I think it has far more to do with the criminal energy of the current rulers of Ukraine than with any ideological or geopolitical or cultural issues.

I agree, though, that Ukraine has a geostrategic importance for Europe and for the West. A democratization, a Europeanization of Ukraine would have larger implications beyond the borders of Ukraine. There are multiple ties between Ukraine and the other post-Soviet states, especially the other orthodox Slavic states of Belarus and Russia.

If we could build here—by "we," I mean the people of Ukraine together with the central and west Europeans, maybe even together with the Americans—a successful model of an orthodox Slavic democratic European state, this would then also have repercussions at least in Belarus and Russia, but perhaps even other post-Soviet republics. That would then indeed have a geostrategic/geopolitical dimension.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Andreas, your words there remind one of the old adage that predictions are always hazardous, especially when it comes to the future.

I want to thank you very much.

Our guest has been Professor Andreas Umland, professor of European studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. He has been speaking directly from Kiev.

Thank you so much for your insights, Andreas. All the best to you in these interesting times in Ukraine.

ANDREAS UMLAND: Thank you very much, David. It was a pleasure.

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