Crisis in Ukraine: The Role and Responsibility of the West

Feb 12, 2014

This is the second in a series of Carnegie Council Security Bulletins on the crisis in Ukraine, in conversation with Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian-born expert on his nation and on European and Eurasian nationalism, who is now based at University College London.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

We are conducting a second interview under our Security Bulletin series on the situation in Ukraine. [Click here for the first interview in the series with Dr. Andreas Umland.] I'm delighted that our guest today is Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov. Dr. Shekhovtsov is a candidate for political science at the University College London. He is also a European fellow of the Radicalism and New Media Research Group of the University of Northampton in the UK. He is an expert on Ukraine and right-wing parties in Europe as a whole.

I'm also delighted to say that he has been part of our group of scholars who have been studying and researching the phenomenon of the rise of the new far right in Europe.

Anton, good morning, and welcome.

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: Good morning, David. Thank you for the invitation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let's go immediately to the current situation in Ukraine and Kiev and beyond, Anton. I know that you have been there recently. There has been, at least in the American press, a bit of a lull in coverage. What is the situation? Is there a lull before another storm? What is going on?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: I hope that there will be no more violence in Kiev and in Ukraine. I really hope that all the discussions and the talks will now be taking place only in the cabinets and only in the Verkhovna Rada, in the parliaments, but not on the streets, and certainly not with any guns or any other tools or instruments of violence.

What is happening now is actually kind of a pause now because of the Olympics, because Yanukovych has today gone to Sochi to take part in the official ceremony of the opening of the Winter Olympics in Russia. It is rumored that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, will not be talking so much about the sports and the competition, but about what is to be done in Ukraine and in Kiev. Probably they will also be discussing the candidate for the position of prime minister, because Yanukovych sacked Mykola Azarov several days ago, so now this position is open. It is rumored that Putin will be trying to persuade Yanukovych to appoint a pro-Russian politician for this position.

So it is kind of a pause, because nobody knows what is going to happen. Andreas Umland, my colleague, already said in the interview with you that the situation is so dynamic that it is almost impossible to predict what's going to happen in a few hours or in a few days.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Anton, if I may, since you bring in Putin and Russia and the dialogue between Putin and Yanukovych, recently former president Kravchuk spoke of Ukraine being on the brink of civil war. I don't know if you consider this hyperbole, but certainly in my visit to Ukraine some years ago, I remember hearing that there were, in effect, four Ukraines—east, west, Crimea, and Kiev. Obviously, Crimea and east have a different view of the current situation, I would think. If you look at the electoral voting maps from the last elections, there clearly is an east-west split, I think also in terms of attitude toward the EU, attitude toward Russia.

Andreas has spoken somewhat apocalyptically of Russian troops being involved, as with Georgia in 2008. Do you see this as a possible endgame? Could Ukraine split?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: I don't really believe in the narrative of the civil war. What has been going on for more than two months is the crackdown of the police on the peaceful protests. The escalation of violence happened not between social groups, but between the law enforcement and the protesters. For a civil war, there have to be at least two social groups representing the population. But now only one group is represented there. That's the protesters in the civil society and the law enforcement. So I don't believe in this narrative.

About the quantity of Ukraines, some say two, some say four. Some even say 22 or even more. Every oblast [administrative region] is a little Ukraine.

I'm not sure it is entirely correct and entirely efficient to explain what modern Ukraine is at the moment.

DAVID SPEEDIE: What I'm really getting at, though, is that in the West, and in particular the anti-Putin, anti-Russia press, there is this sense that all of Ukraine is yearning to join Europe and the EU and so on. We'll get into the desirability of that in a moment. But it is fair to say, isn't it, that a substantial part of Ukraine looks to Moscow rather than to Brussels? Isn't that fair to say, in modern Ukraine, not centuries or millennia ago?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: The recent polls suggest that the majority of Ukrainians are in favor of the integration with the EU rather than with the Russia-led Customs Union. Yes, it is absolutely true that in the east and in the south, especially in the Crimea, people are more in favor of joining the Customs Union with Russia. But it also has to do with the educational and generational approaches. The younger people are, even in the east and even in the Crimea, more in favor of closer links to the EU. Young people, especially students and especially young professionals, travel a lot to the EU. The EU has lost its enigmatic image. Now it is a reality, where people have already been and seen.

Many people travel to Russia, as well. They can compare these two entities.

I would say that educational and generational approaches are also important, as important, probably, as the regional divides.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On the matter of the EU, then, looking back to the bargain that fell apart when Putin stepped in, according to reports, how good a deal was this? One narrative I have read was that the EU, to some extent, bungled or blew the opportunity with Ukraine. I believe it was the case that the release of Mrs. Tymoshenko from custody was sort of there as a stipulation or a condition, that there was no adequate compensation for loss of trade with Russia, which clearly is important to Ukraine.

How ardent should Ukraine be at the moment in courting membership in the EU? Clearly there are problems within the EU itself, both in terms of some secessionist impulses within European countries, the North-South divide on economic issues. Wouldn't Ukraine find itself more in a situation of the Portugal-Greece-Italy model than France-Germany-UK? Is this something that Ukraine has really thought through? Does that affect, in your opinion, the desirability of EU courtship?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: I believe there are two views on Ukraine's integration with the EU, or at least signing of the association agreement with the EU.

So one perspective would be an economic one. This perspective says that in a short-term perspective or even in a mid-term perspective, Ukraine would suffer economic losses, but in the long-term perspective, because the association with the EU implies modernization of industries and modernization, in general, of the Ukrainian economy, it is better than the association with the Customs Union.

What the EU demanded was that the Ukrainian economy should be modernized. What Russia had when they offered to Ukraine to join the Customs Union—they demanded nothing. So all those factories and all those plants in Ukraine that have been producing goods for the Russian marketplace will be without any modernization, without any reforms. They would soon fall into pieces, without any modernization.

So, yes, in the short-term perspective, that would be perhaps worse for Ukraine, but in the long-term, much better.

The political perspective is that many Ukrainians feel that in 1991 Ukraine did not really become independent. Sometimes the comparisons are—and I probably like this comparison—with Austria after 1945, when it declared independence from Germany, but it didn't really become independent, and only 10 years later, when the occupation forces were removed from Austria, it became independent and a free democratic state.

Ukraine is sometimes considered as trapped within this period, formally independent from the Soviet Union, because there is no Soviet Union, but not fully independent. The integration with the EU gives this idea that Ukraine is able to choose its own political development.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Again, though, let me just bring this particular topic to a close with one very direct question. Given history, given relationships over many, many years, given trade and the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, does Russia have absolutely no legitimate interests in the future of Ukraine?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: I'm not sure I can talk about the legitimate interests of Russia in Ukraine, because if we consider Ukraine to be an independent state, then the legitimate interests of Ukraine must come forward.

I would return to your previous question about the trade agreement and the compensation. The thing is that during the negotiations between the EU and Ukraine for most of the period before 2013, Ukraine and the EU did not really know how Russia would react. The trade war it started in August of 2013, last year, when it stopped Ukrainian goods from coming to the Russian markets—nobody expected that Russia would behave in this way. So the issue of compensation was not really discussed.

When Yanukovych started discussing this issue and the compensation, the Ukrainian government and Yanukovych started talking about $15 billion to compensate. But they never explained where they took this amount of money, where this figure comes from. The EU, of course, was quite cautious about this amount, because it was never explained.

Therefore, I think the EU is sometimes now considered as betraying Ukraine and betraying the democratic process. But at the same time, the excuse for the EU is that it never expected that Russia would hold to Ukraine so strongly. If the EU ever thought of any competition with Russia about Ukraine's future, it just did not understand—Brussels did not understand how important for the geopolitical project of Russia Ukraine is.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I would only throw in there, Anton, that there are many countries in recent history, in Central America and elsewhere, that are independent countries, but the United States has felt that it's in their genuine, legitimate interests to have some role in how those countries evolve, politically and otherwise.

But you referred to my conversation recently with Andreas Umland, our colleague. After that, we got some feedback from Professor Fred Eidlin, another Ukraine expert. He made the point that, as with the Orange Revolution some years ago, he feels that Ukraine has been presented with a sort of zero-sum game—choose between good and evil, i.e., the West or Russia—and that this is somehow emblematic of a sort of holdover animus toward Russia from Soviet times, and therefore it means that Ukraine is really forced to choose. It's an either/or proposition, from the West's point of view. It's a case of either us or them.

Do you think that's an invidious observation or is there some truth to this, that Ukraine, to some extent, is in some dour strategic limbo, fitting neither into Europe or Russia, but being forced to make that choice?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: I read this comment. Thank you for mentioning it.

To some extent, yes, it was seen and it was presented as a zero-sum game. But at the same time, it was very clear that there was a choice, not between the EU and Russia, but between the EU and Putin's Russia. For Ukraine, it is very important to maintain good relations with Russia. Of course, we are now in a situation where we cannot change the regime in Russia.

But this approach to Russia nowadays in Ukraine doesn't have to do anything with the Russians as a nation, as a people. Those anti-Russian attitudes that are quite vocal and quite visible now in Ukraine have to do only with the current regime in Russia.

I would also agree that the EU probably made a mistake saying that "you're either with us or you're with Russia." It was probably a mistake, a strategic mistake, but only one of the many mistakes that the EU did in the discussions, in the negotiations, in any talks with the Ukrainian authorities.

So, yes, I probably agree on this. But I would also add that in that comment an idea was presented that Russia is also a modernizing state. No, it is not. It is not a modernizing state. It is a state, under Putin, which is trying to rebuild its geopolitical power at the expense of other countries in the neighborhood. It's probably even trying to go back to the czarist regime, czarist Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We could probably debate Russia for longer than we have.

Let me move to the question of the West. There has been a recent rumor of U.S.-EU talks on creating a national unity government in Ukraine, controlled by opposition figures, committing to reforming the economy—and, of course, jump-starting again the talks on a trade deal with the EU. Under this, it was added that Mr. Yanukovych would remain in place until the scheduled elections next year, but would accept some curbs on power.

I'd like you to comment on that, to the extent that that is ongoing, but also more broadly on the role and indeed the moral imperative of the West. What is the responsibility of the West, as you see it? There have been some fairly anodyne declarations of support from President Obama and Chancellor Merkel in support of the protests in Kiev and elsewhere. But where do you see the West's moral obligations, as well as strategic interests?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: First of all, about the government of the national unity. Yes, I do think that this is a very good idea and this should probably be promoted by the West, by the United States and by the EU, and should be supported by the Ukrainian opposition leaders. I hope that Yanukovych will come to his senses and support this, too.

About the responsibility of the West, I do think that the West has responsibility here. In its relation to Ukraine and in its response to what's happening in Ukraine at the moment, the West, if I may use this very broad collective term, must decide what the West itself is about, if it's only about capitalism and the freedom of movement of finances around the world, or whether the West is also about freedom and democracy and the rule of law and human rights.

The majority of the protesters now in Ukraine fight exactly for these liberal, Western ideas. They are trying to bring Ukraine closer to this probably idealistic and romanticized view of the West, where the rule of law is something that is respected and not destroyed. People want to have Ukraine without corruption, without authoritarianism.

These are fundamental ideas of the West, as I see them. Yes, the West has a responsibility.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Assuming that Yanukovych—the days may be numbered—what lies ahead in terms of succession and the future? Obviously Mr. Yatsenyuk is young. I gather he was offered the prime ministership by Yanukovych and declined. There is Mr. Klitschko, who seems like a charismatic figure. Then, of course, you have Svoboda, a group that we have looked at in our collective far-right project, and Mr. Tyahnybok. There's a fairly broad spectrum, from the respectable to the rather sinister, in terms of what comes next.

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: I think we can rule out Tyahnybok completely from the idea of the future leadership in Ukraine. Yatsenyuk and Klitschko are, I would say, the most popular leaders of the opposition today. Yes, Yatsenyuk was offered the position of prime minister, but according to the current constitution, this position is not much, really, because everything is being controlled by Yanukovych, and Yanukovych, the president, would be able to sack Yatsenyuk and any other minister whenever he wished.

When we are talking about the third candidate and the third opposition leader, I wouldn't actually mention Tyahnybok. I would mention Petro Poroshenko, who is considered a quite successful businessman—as they say in Ukraine, oligarch—who was working with Yanukovych in the past, but for quite a long time already, has been quite in favor of cooperation, economic cooperation and political cooperation, with the EU.

He's a very interesting candidate, who may be considered a kind of bridge between two Ukraines or the past and the future. He's a moderate democratic politician and also a businessman, who knows how the economy works. Another leader who knows how the economy works is Yatsenyuk. Although he had very strange and sometimes complicated relations with Prime Minister Tymoshenko, they seem to be allies now, and they have been allies for quite a long time already.

Klitschko is probably the most popular leader of the opposition, but he's not professional enough. He's not a politician yet. He may be a politician in the making.

But I think that in terms of experience, in terms of knowledge of how the economy works, Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko are the most favorable candidates.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Finally, Anton, I want to press you a little bit. Since you have been involved with the Council, as I said, on our Europe/far-right project, I want to just ask for your comments and thoughts on the fairly motley group of far-right entities. We mentioned Svoboda a moment ago. Then, of course, there are some other, distinctly more ominous or unsavory characters that one reads about, such as Mr. Dmitro Yarosh, Pravy Sektor—I think translated as "Right Sector"—which seems to be against all foreign influence in Ukraine, whether that be EU, Russia, or whatever.

You mentioned violence in the demonstrations, the violence of the police. On the other hand, there has been violence, of course, from some of the extreme protest groups, and even the observation made that the so-called moderate protesters need Pravy Sektor to protect the barricades around the protest camps in Kiev.

All this is to say, just give us your quick assessment on the extremist elements who may be taking advantage of the situation and what their impact would be. Is Svoboda going to reach the level of influence of a Front national in France or is it going to remain strictly a splinter, outside entity?

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: The extreme right element is indeed present in current protests in Ukraine. I wouldn't say that it is a significant element. It has its role in the protests for sure, and mainly this is the defense of Maidan [Square], of the major place in Kiev where the protests are held.

These extreme right elements consist of several groups.

Svoboda, interestingly, has largely moderated its own rhetoric and, especially now, is trying to very firmly coordinate its activities with the two democratic leaders, with Yatsenyuk and Klitschko. So they don't really stand out, and, at least lately, during the last month, there were no incidents when Svoboda was involved in any confrontation. Tyahnybok himself was calling to stop violence on Maidan during the protests. So they've moved to the center, I would say, at least a bit.

At the same time, there are elements even close to Svoboda who are very radical, quite extreme. But they are again a very minor element that is not even trying to exert influence on Svoboda.

Dmitro Yarosh and Pravy Sektor: From one point of view, in terms of practice, they are more radical than Svoboda. But at the same time, its ideology is less radical than some elements in Svoboda. They try to present themselves as national revolutionaries. Their main goal is to finish the national liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people. It somehow overlaps with the general feeling of the protests, as being the process of finally acquiring a truly independent Ukrainian state.

I would say that the extreme right element in the protests amounts to up to 5, 10 percent of all the protests. Pravy Sektor was involved in violence against the police, but it wasn't the only fighting force in this violence. Pravy Sektor joined disaffected democrats who were radicalized by the absence of any progress in their peaceful protests. AutoMaidan—this is an automobile protest—and self-defense of Maidan, which is a non-ideological fighting force, they coordinate their activities with Pravy Sektor.

Initially Pravy Sektor, indeed, was against any integration. It was against the integration with the EU. It was against the Customs Union. But in the recent weeks, their rhetoric has changed a bit. One of the changes that I noticed is that now they say that they would support Ukraine's rapprochement with the EU, Ukraine's integration, European integration. Probably they started to understand that the national revolution is probably a good thing for them, but what's coming next? Ukraine is in such a geographical and geopolitical position that it cannot really survive alone. It has to move to some direction.

What is also interesting is that their attitudes to national minorities in Ukraine have also changed. They are now praising the representatives of the national minorities who stand with them on Maidan and in Kiev and fight against the corrupt regime of Yanukovych. They even use this phrase "national minorities who fight for our common motherland." They try not to use the exclusivist rhetoric here.

What is frightening, however, with Pravy Sektor itself is that it comprises many groups that I would call neo-Nazi. Fortunately, they also constitute a minor element of Pravy Sektor, but they are there. Dmitro Yarosh, who is the leader of the Trident, of Trizub—it's the name of the organization—it may be not racist itself, but it cooperates with the real nasty people who are part of the Pravy Sektor, like Patriot of Ukraine. This organization is from Kharkiv. Actually, it's from the eastern region of Ukraine. There are some members from the Patriot of Ukraine in Pravy Sektor. Bily Molot, which is White Hammer, which is basically a skinhead organization or movement, they are also there.

Yarosh is trying to present himself as a national revolutionary in terms of the national liberation struggle, as someone who hates Nazis and who hates racism, but this lack of ideological coherence in the Pravy Sektor implies that it may be split at some point, where the more extremist groups would be trying to do something on their own. This may pose a danger.

I don't really think that the extremist elements of the protests can take over, because they are not there independently. They try to coordinate their activities. They have no power—not political power, not social power, not ideological power—to take over the democratic protests.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you so much, Anton. That's a very comprehensive and panoramic view of the various players here.

I would only conclude by saying that—you mentioned the 5 to 10 percent of extremists—as we all know from that other great European phenomenon of soccer hooligan violence, it only takes 5 to 10 percent of a crowd to cause significant mischief. At very least, as we continue this exploration of the far right in Europe, we ought to monitor the situation in Ukraine very closely and very diligently, and be aware of the nexus of some of these groups to other movements in Europe.

Our guest has been Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov, talking to us from London.

Thank you again so much for your time and insights, Anton. All the very best.

ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: Thank you, David.

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