Update from Ukraine

Aug 29, 2016

Dr. Petro discusses the violence in Crimea, and Ukraine's economic and political stalemate. For long-term stability, Ukraine has to reconcile with Russia, he says. "There's simply no way that Ukraine can prosper with a perpetual enemy on its borders."

Editor's note: The audio is slightly different from the transcript, as Dr. Petro made a few edits to the text.

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

Today in our Ethics in Security podcasts we are delighted to welcome back again a good and trusted friend of the Council, Professor Nicolai Petro, professor of international and comparative politics at the University of Rhode Island.

Nicolai, welcome back.

NICOLAI PETRO: Thank you, David. Nice to be back.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We have spoken to you quite frequently in recent years from Odessa, where you've spent the last few summers. You're now back in the United States, but literally just back. It always seems that you tend to be in Ukraine in what the Chinese call interesting times.


DAVID SPEEDIE: I suppose all times in Ukraine at this point are interesting.

Let me begin by asking you about the recent tensions that began with the incident along the Crimean border, which the Russian authorities described as an act of terror. Now there are reports of military buildup literally in all directions, north in Bryansk, to the east near Rostov, to the south in Crimea, and west in the Transnistria area of Moldova. It's described as a sort of massive, comprehensive military buildup. Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has described this as the exhaustive measures that will be taken in response to the events in Crimea a few days ago.

What's your read on this? How dangerous is this? Is it mainly a show of strength, or do you think we're edging closer to resumption of hostilities?

NICOLAI PETRO: I can't imagine that this incident would lead to a direct military intervention by Russia in Ukraine. It seems to me more of a show of force, perhaps to show the Ukrainian party of war that Russia is indeed willing to defend itself and to respond to provocations if necessary.

Putin's wording was cautious and vague. He said, "We cannot let this incident pass," and that under the current circumstances, in which he believes members of the Ukrainian military support these sort of incursions from Ukraine into Crimea, that further negotiations in the Normandy format would be pointless. I see all of this as posturing in preparation for some sort of new diplomatic initiative.

For his part, Poroshenko has responded both with a military call-up and putting forces on alert, but he has also signaled, through a phone conversation with the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, that he would be glad to push through the decentralization and effective regional autonomy of Eastern Ukraine, but that his hands are tied because he does not have a sufficient majority in the parliament to do this. This is an interesting way to phrase it because a lot of analysts are predicting that when the Ukrainian parliament comes back into session on September 7 there will be a very strong push for early new elections.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That's interesting, because when you say that there is a good deal of posturing going on on Putin's part—

NICOLAI PETRO: I would actually say it's on both sides.

DAVID SPEEDIE: —there's some interesting language being used in terms of how we interpret all that's going on. One Ukrainian said, "He is trying to reshuffle the situation in his own interest." Another says "reinterpreting the Minsk agreements in Russia's favor, recalibrating the Minsk Protocol to his advantage."

Am I not right in saying that the Minsk Protocols do call for elections in the East? So why would this be seen as any kind of a recalibration rather than just a reaffirmation of what has been agreed upon?

NICOLAI PETRO: The interpretation of the Minsk Accords by the Ukrainian government has shifted dramatically from when the accords were signed to today. The Accords stipulate that all the things that have to be done politically and economically to reintegrate Eastern Ukraine into the rest of Ukraine—including decentralization initiatives, changes to the constitution, then local elections—all need to occur before the rebel forces transfer control of the Eastern border over to Ukrainian authorities. Understandably, the rebels see control of the border as their lifeline to survival. Therefore, as a gesture of goodwill and reconciliation, the Minsk Accords stipulated in detail all the things Kiev had to do before control of the border was transferred.

However, over the past year the Ukrainian government has said, "Transfer control of the border first, then, when we are in control we'll negotiate with the local population." Well, obviously this is not a viable position for negotiation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes, not a great bargaining tool.

NICOLAI PETRO: No. Or at least it's not going to sound that way to the rebels in the East.


As far as I know, part of Russia's recent response to the Crimea incident is that it has effectively withdrawn for the time being from the Minsk talks with France, Germany, and Ukraine. Is that correct?

NICOLAI PETRO: Putin has said he sees no point in continuing in the current format given this latest incursion which occurred, in his opinion, with the blessing of Ukrainian authorities. The debate, I suppose, is whose version of these events is more plausible?

Given the persistent attacks, both verbal and physical, that have been launched from Ukraine on Crimea—the disruption of electricity, the pylons blown up in November 2015, the transportation blockades, the blockade of water—it's not that hard to believe that groups close to the government might have taken this initiative upon themselves. It's hard to know. But it's certainly not hard to believe that this initiative came with at least a tacit blessing of certain militarized groups in Ukraine.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Do you think Poroshenko is in control of this situation as far as that's concerned?

NICOLAI PETRO: That's a very good question, on many levels. Is he in control of the political process? How much so? Is he in control of the military? Is he in control of the paramilitary forces? Pretty clearly he doesn't seem to be in control of the paramilitary forces, because he has ceded effective control over those to the ministry of interior, Arsen Avakov. Mr. Avakov even makes statements in the press about the need to replace current military generals, even though he's not formally in the military chain of command.

These sorts of statements lead one to suspect that Poroshenko is in a bind; that he is not sure precisely how to proceed, and may not have the tools at his disposal to lead the country.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That sort of questionable control seems to go beyond the military. You were kind enough to share some of your impressions of the summer recently spent in Ukraine. It makes, if I may say, for some pretty depressing reading. The word would seem to be stasis in terms of the economy, in terms of any control over corruption, in terms of the influence of the oligarchs. There just seems to be a frozen-in-time element and no visible sort of exit in the direction of improvement.

NICOLAI PETRO: I would say you're right. The lack of forward movement on a concerted reform agenda is now widely recognized in Ukraine. That's one of the reasons that there really is no political coalition in charge with a consistent reform agenda.

The political parties that now dominate the parliament, the Poroshenko Bloc and the Popular Front, both have popularity ratings around 10 percent. As a result, it's very difficult for them to promote reforms, and the latest reshuffle of the government in April has only weakened the position of the reformist political forces. At the same time one sees in the media constant reminders of how easy it is to fall back to the patterns of the past.

For example, there have been a number of significant domestic scandals this summer. The noted journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed in a bomb explosion on June 20. Political leaders of the opposition, like the former head of the Party of Regions in the Ukrainian parliament—Oleksandr Yefremov was just arrested. One of Ukraine's most popular political bloggers, Myroslava Berdnyk, was also arrested in August. There is a scandal brewing, with no end in sight, between the newly formed National Anticorruption Bureau and the prosecutor general because the bureau has been listening in on certain government prosecutors and seems to be preparing a case against them for corruption. Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko is, meanwhile, avidly defending his turf.

All of this seems very much like the old Ukraine, and many conclude that at some point the economic and political stagnation will get so bad that some populist alternative will rear its head. Now is probably a good time to mention Nadiya Savchenko.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes. You describe her as "the Donald Trump of Ukrainian politics." Is it all show no substance?

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, she has only been a politician for three months.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Just to recap, she was a pilot in the Ukrainian Air Force, is that right, captured in Russia?

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes, a helicopter pilot with a not particularly distinguished career. She was captured during a skirmish close to the Russian border and held herself very defiantly in a Russian prison. She gained a great deal of notoriety for her personal courage and her willingness to go on hunger strikes. She eventually was exchanged for two Russians who were also captured in Eastern Ukraine. After arriving back she became the single most popular political figure in Ukraine, for a while.

During her incarceration, she was elected to a seat in parliament and designated as Ukraine's official representative to the European Parliament. So she had a place within which to fit.

But when she came back she said, "People know my position. I am a fervent Ukrainian patriot. But I don't really know this political kitchen very well. I will take two months to understand the situation that the country is in, meet everyone that I can, and then I will report back to the people about my findings." And she did this.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That sounds very smart.

NICOLAI PETRO: On August 2 she held a press conference to report, as she had promised. She really lit into the current government and Petro Poroshenko personally. She also made a number of statements and proposals that would seem to be at odds with the characterization of her as a rabid and uncompromising Ukrainian nationalist.

If I could just mention four points that I thought were interesting bridge-building initiatives, I think it will give you a sense of the confusion that she is causing in Ukrainian politics right now.

First, she has called for a referendum on federalism. She says: There's no difference, really, between federalism and decentralization, and most people need to be educated about this. Once people take the time to educate themselves, there should be a referendum on the proper type of administrative system that best suits Ukraine, rather than have the politicians decide.

Second, there should also be a referendum on military alliances. The government should not decide a priori if the country should join NATO or some other military bloc. Let the people decide.

Third, she leveled a personal blistering attack on Petro Poroshenko, saying that the current authorities have to answer for the current chaos and for the war that they unleashed in the East. [Dr. Petro's note: The full text of her remarkable speech is available in Russian and Ukrainian here. I could only find excerpts in English.]

Fourth, since the current political system isn't functioning well, constantly shifting between what Ukrainians call a "parliamentary-presidential system" and a "presidential-parliamentary system"—a distinction that almost no one understands—we need to reshuffle the deck. There should be a constitutional convention of the best and the brightest from across the land to rewrite the constitution in a way that truly represents the diversity of the country.

Finally, her preference, she said, would be for a true parliamentary republic in which the president is essentially a figurehead, like the queen of England,

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, that's a very interesting menu. It's the first I'm hearing it, so forgive me if this is off the top of the head. On the one hand, a rabid nationalist who wants a referendum on federalism, and also blames Petro Poroshenko for the chaos they unleashed in the East.

NICOLAI PETRO: Right. This has led to accusations by her former supporters in the blogosphere and in the political elite of Ukraine that she has been brainwashed, or that maybe she was always Putin's agent. The problem with merely dismissing her is that the regime built her up into a mythical figure, a national symbol. Still, I wouldn't exaggerate her influence. She is not someone who with the snap of her fingers can summon tens of thousands of people to march on Kiev.

Her new position has led people who would ordinarily be totally on her side to step back and say, "This isn't the agenda that I thought she would be supporting. She seems to be reaching out to the rebel leaders." Given the war rhetoric coming from the government, they find this confusing.


NICOLAI PETRO: As a matter of fact, one of the more interesting initiatives regards negotiations with the rebels. She has said, "Someone has to be willing to negotiate honestly with the rebel leaders in the East. Our current political leaders don't seem to be willing to do that and I am willing to do that for them and take the burden of negotiation upon myself."

All of this sounds very ad hoc and slapped together. This is clearly not a well-thought-out political agenda. There is no political party that has rallied to her side, though that doesn't mean one couldn't appear overnight. But right now it is very unclear what her political influence is and who her political allies might be. By trying to bridge the gap in Ukrainian politics between its Eastern and Western halves, she has turned out to be unique. It's much safer in Ukrainian politics to be either totally for the Maidan and a pro-Western Ukraine, or firmly on the opposite side of the fence.

Ukraine needs people who can bridge this gap, but so far Nadiya Savchenko seems to be the only one willing to bear that mantle.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And of course, just as a final thought, speaking "honestly" to the rebel leaders in the East does not presuppose what the outcome of that engagement would be.

NICOLAI PETRO: That's right.

DAVID SPEEDIE: One final thing on that, back to the rabid nationalism question, Nicolai. That is, do you sense with the continuing malaise that, again, the more things change the more they stay the same, the static state of affairs in Ukraine, that two years plus after Maidan is there a danger that—well, we knew that Maidan had some elements of genuine civil society, committed individuals, and some other more nefarious, darker forces manipulating the situation—do you see a danger of the so-called moderate civil society builders becoming disillusioned and the more extreme forces reemerging as the result of what has happened, or what has not happened, since Maidan?

NICOLAI PETRO: I think there is that danger. For civil society, an engagement is a process of enduring creation and involvement in the construction of institutions. These institutions have to endure and flourish in a way that replicates them for future generations.

Raw nationalism, however, is not built on institutions. It is built on personality. The downfall of even very successful nationalistic regimes is always that the leader eventually dies and there is no sufficiently charismatic successor to replace him. At that point it ends.

Any alliance between the two is therefore temporary. I think that thoughtful civil society activists expected that with the economic success and political stability, the populace would drift away from nationalism and invest in political and economic institutions that thrive on compromise.

The problem today is that civil society initiatives have too little to show for their efforts. People then begin to say, "Well, is there any other alternative?" That's when nationalism and populist rhetoric become attractive and can simply sweep aside the civic agenda entirely.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The other thing, again picking up on some of your reflections over the summer, may discourage the more moderate elements—what you describe as the West kicking Ukraine to the curb: no money from the IMF (International Monetary Fund); inconsistent and perhaps ineffectual pressure on Russia—these would not seem to play into the hands of more moderate elements.

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, you're right. But a lot of this is a matter of how it's portrayed. It's understandable that the nationalist agenda is, at its core, anti-Russian because that rallies the populace and justifies its sacrifices.

But for the civil society the endgame has to be reconciliation with Russia, the country's largest neighbor. Reconnecting historical, economic, and emotional ties is needed for Ukraine's own long-term stability. There's simply no way that Ukraine can prosper with a perpetual enemy on its borders. Especially one that has always played such an enormous role in its political, cultural, and religious life.

So, civil society activists are caught in a bind. By tying their agenda too closely to the nationalists, they are trapped by nationalist rhetoric, when they should be saying, "We can accept nationalist support only so far, but our end goal is a normal relationship with every country, even Russia."

I actually think that such a position would increase the credibility and support of the proponents of civil society in Ukraine. But at this point, negative rhetoric and hostility are drowning out sensible voices.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, on that sober but perhaps in the longer term more hopeful note, one certainly hopes, we'll draw this to a close.

Our guest has been Professor Nicolai Petro, professor of comparative and international politics at the University of Rhode Island.

Nick, as always, many, many thanks for your insights, which give us so much of a clearer idea of an unclear situation, shall we say.

NICOLAI PETRO: Thanks for the opportunity, David.

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