Report from Ukraine: The Crisis Moves East

April 21, 2014

Constitution Square in Kharkiv, Ukraine via Shutterstock

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. This is another in our Security Bulletin series.

We are very pleased to welcome back Dr. Nicolai Petro, professor of international relations at the University of Rhode Island, who is, however, spending a year in Odessa on a Fulbright fellowship.

Nicolai, welcome back.

NICOLAI PETRO: Hello, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We have been talking over the past few weeks, during this crisis in Ukraine. Obviously in times past, we tended to focus on Crimea and the separatist vote and then subsequent annexation by Russia. But now, equally obviously, the focus has shifted very much to Ukraine's east. I wonder if you could just give us a sense of what's happening there.

It seems pretty chaotic. One day, as you pointed out earlier, the regime in Kiev said it was willing to consider a referendum on federalism and then, the next day, launched what they called an anti-terror operation.

Who's in charge here, and what's their game plan? How do you see it playing out?

NICOLAI PETRO: At this point, I don't think anybody is fully in charge, particularly in the Donetsk region, which seems to be the locus of the resistance.

I was struck by the findings of a survey that was taken in April by the Kiev Institute of International Studies of the eight predominantly Russian-speaking regions. It indicated that the two regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are indeed ones that feel more alienated than the rest of the Russian-speaking regions of the east and south. So it is in those regions that rebellion has focused and taken on the characteristics of an armed uprising.

As you pointed out, an anti-terror operation was initiated, but it did not fare very well. There were defections. There was apparently an understanding by the troops that they would be fighting some sort of Russian units, but in fact all that they encountered were civilians. They were also poorly equipped. So the entire operation stalled.

In Slavyansk, over Easter, however, some national guard units were mobilized. These are composed largely of former members of the Maidan self-defense forces. There was a shootout that took place over Easter. It's not clear at this point what the situation is there.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Obviously what is of concern here is Russia's response. I'll read part of Foreign Minister Lavrov's statement from over the weekend. Clearly, as you say, if the national guard mobilization is consisting of Maidan self-defense forces who did not want to disarm after Maidan, it certainly gives some credence to Russia's claim that the government from Kiev is not in control in the east.

This is what Lavrov said: "There has been a surge in appeals to Russia for saving them"—that is, obviously, the Eastern Ukrainians—"from this outrage. We are being put into an extremely complex position. Those who are deliberately pursuing a civil war, possibly in an attempt to start a big, serious, bloody conflict, are pursuing a criminal policy. And we will not only condemn this policy, but will also stop it."

So fairly direct and perhaps ominous sentiments there. It just seems to be that things are spinning out of control.

NICOLAI PETRO: We shall have to see. One of the actors that has yet to fully come into play is the monitoring mechanism, which is an OSCE- (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) mandated group that is currently in the region, visiting it, to make its recommendations. Based, I think, on the nature of those recommendations, we shall have to see how the parties react to the findings of the OSCE monitors. Then we shall have to see whether they come down clearly on one side or another as to indicating culpability in the ongoing conflict.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Then, of course, we have the so-called Geneva Agreement. That called, essentially, for a cessation of violence on all sides and so on and so forth. Can you go a little bit into the particulars of the Geneva Agreement? And would you agree, based on what we've just been discussing, that the diplomatic progress at the safe remove of Switzerland is not reflected on the streets of Eastern Ukraine?

NICOLAI PETRO: As you know, they spent seven hours hashing out the details. As I understand it, some of the meetings were done together with Ukraine representatives, and there were also meetings on the side between individual participants to see if they could come to a further agreement and understanding.

There are several points that I would highlight from that agreement. One is the statement that all sides must refrain from violence, intimidation, and provocative actions. Now, the broad scope of that statement would seem to me to rule out the use of an anti-terrorist operation by the government, and it would also suggest that this notion of "all sides" includes the militants that in the past have supported the Maidan, including the Maidan self-defense forces and the Right Sector, as much as the current rebels that are in control of certain buildings in the east.

There's also a reference to all illegally occupied streets, squares, and other public places in Ukrainian cities. Again, there's very carefully stated no regional limitation on that. The fact that it specifically mentions squares and other public places, again, seems to be a clear reference to the Maidan.

So I think one of the things that we're seeing is an attempt to stabilize and, if you will, bring back law and order to all of Ukraine rather than just focusing on the east. The few comments that I've read in American newspapers, in The Washington Post and others, which suggest, to the contrary, that this is an appeal specifically to disarm the east, I think are not correct, are misleading.

There's also a statement about outreach to all Ukrainian regions and constituencies. I think this underscoring of constituencies recognizes the role of non-formal actors who could then be expected to participate in negotiations.

Finally, the last paragraph of the agreement talks about the importance of financial assistance. I think, again, with Russia at the table and bringing this issue to the fore, it underscores the fact that there isn't really much possibility of stabilizing the downturn of the Ukrainian economy without significant Russian assistance. I hope that this part of the agreement indicates that this is becoming better understood in Europe and the United States.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Nicolai, I should have asked at the beginning, with regard to the Geneva Agreement, who was there? At what level were the discussions and negotiations conducted?

NICOLAI PETRO: There was Secretary Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State Nuland, and some assistants. There was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his party. There was EU Foreign Secretary Catherine Ashton, and there was the Ukrainian foreign minister, Deshchytsia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So it was the A-team of negotiators.

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes. And I just assume that, over seven hours, they actually did debate exactly the meaning of these rather broad terms. At first I was a bit alarmed that the phrasing seemed to be so vague, and there was no timetable given for these actions to be undertaken.

But if one assumes that they actually did discuss the details about the meaning and came to this particular wording consciously rather than accidentally, then it does suggest that there is, at least among the parties, a clear understanding of what is expected under the terms "all sides," "all illegally occupied streets," "all Ukrainian regions and constituencies."

DAVID SPEEDIE: Back for a moment to the volatility in the east, which again is where we're very much focused at this point. You were kind enough to send me some of the polling data that you referred to in passing a minute or two ago.

Some of it really stands out as being, if not inconsistent, at least—well, it is, in fact, somewhat mutually contradictory. For example, as you might expect, in Donetsk and Luhansk, which, as you said, were perhaps the more radically anti-Kiev locales, fewer than 15 percent consider acting President Turchynov to be a legitimate president. Even in other parts of the east and south that are less anti-Kiev, it's still only at 30 percent for Turchynov and Yatsenyuk, the current acting prime minister.

"Is Russia intervening illegally in Ukrainian affairs?" You quote figures here of 54 to 32 percent. Yet, "Is Russia rightly defending the interests of Russian speakers?" 50 percent say "yes," 33 percent "no."

I guess you don't put yourself up as a polling analyst expert, but can you explain some of this apparent contradiction in the views, particularly of Russia's role in the east?

NICOLAI PETRO: I think what people are indicating is a desire to return to a negotiated peaceful process, to actually try to have their voice heard. But the worst outcome would be to actually unleash a civil war by having Russia intervene militarily. It's not a desirable outcome.

What would be desirable would be to have—as both businessmen and local politicians, mayors of the cities and representatives of local city councils, have said, these are, in fact, popular demands for greater autonomy. It would be ideal to have representatives from Kiev come and talk to them about that.

By the way, there was an interesting incident on Sunday, when there was a direct connection on national television with Yulia Tymoshenko, who was in Donetsk and said that she had spoken to the opposition leaders and that it had been a difficult negotiation, but she felt that it was important to actually listen to them and to listen to their grievances. But she is really the only national figure to have done so up until now, except, of course, the representative of the Party of Regions.

This makes the entire discussion one where representatives of the east—but especially and somewhat distinctly, Luhansk and Donetsk—argue that their voices are not yet being heard and they would like to establish a dialogue. To the extent that this is the case, it is inaccurate—and I have to stress this—inaccurate to call them pro-Russian or separatist, because what they are asking for is autonomy—some define that as federalism; some do not—in any case, a greater say in local affairs within the Ukrainian federation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And this is also borne out in another statistic that you cite that shows a clear majority opposing outright secession, as in Crimea, and joining the Russian Federation. It takes me back to a quote that has stuck with me from the very beginning of the crisis, from the east: Someone either saying or waving a banner that said, "We don't want to be part of Russia, but we don't want to be apart from Russia."

Clearly there's a sense of identification with Russia, but not necessarily as part of the Russian Federation.

NICOLAI PETRO: It's a bit worrying to me, because at the end of this survey there was a rating of the current political candidates. There are more than 20 of them. Among them, in the eastern regions, which were the base of support for Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions and that led to his victory in the last political election—among the current candidates, only one manages to get over 10 percent, and that's Petro Poroshenko. Now, 10 percent is not a huge number, of course. There are a lot of candidates running.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And, of course, he's proclaimed as the clear frontrunner at this point. Ten percent for a frontrunner is—

NICOLAI PETRO: I think the reason for his lead in the east and the south is probably name recognition, because I don't hear anything particular in his political campaign that appeals to the interests of the east.

But there's another aspect of this that I think is interesting. Only about a third say that they have not already made up their minds. So if you had Poroshenko's total and say that all of the people who haven't made up their minds could be added into that, you still have less than half voting, finding a candidate that they can vote for. I think one of the real worries that we should be concerned about and that the government in Kiev should be concerned about is the possibility of the east, or certain regions of the east at least, boycotting the elections, simply deciding that it's not worth choosing among this slate of candidates.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You also mentioned the recent meeting of the Valdai Club, the high-level expert discussion group, and also the Russian-German Forum in Berlin. I know you were there. One item of the report that you gave from there really struck one immediately. You say, "Civil society is forming in Eastern Ukraine. This is not to Western Ukraine or the West's liking."

That's a very striking comment. Can you elaborate just a little bit?

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes. One of the participants—and there were mostly German senior officials, former diplomats, and journalists, but also representatives from a number of other countries. Primarily they discussed reports, an analysis that had been prepared by several experts from Ukraine. One of the points that was made was that, as a result of these tensions and the reaction to the change of power, in February, in Kiev, this was immediately denounced in the east, in Kharkiv and other regions, as illegitimate.

Subsequent developments suggested to at least some of the participants that, much as we were seeing in the previous three months an expression of civil society in the western and central regions, the reaction against the takeover power in February was an expression of a similar civic concern and, indeed, the beginnings at least of the emergence of a civil society in the east, but around very different issues, issues of concern to the population there. Specifically, will they be able to retain their cultural identity? Will they be able to preserve their economic ties, which are strong, with Russia?

Throughout this conflict, throughout this debate between the east and the government in Kiev, despite all the things that have happened, and even the loss of Crimea, we see two interesting pieces of data come out of the April poll. One is that if a referendum were held today—even today—only 25 percent of the population in the east and the south would want to join the EU. Forty-seven percent still would prefer to join the Customs Union.

In addition, when asked about what sort of relations Ukraine and Russia should have ideally, only 15 percent say that they should be the same as with any other foreign country; in other words, distant, with border crossings that are carefully regulated. More than 80 percent desire a friendly relationship between Ukraine and Russia, with fully open borders.

So that remains a distinct orientation that, even after all the events and clashes that have occurred and the loss of Crimea, remains a consistent aspiration of at least half the population of Ukraine.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In other words, if I could paraphrase, what's coming from the east is, "Why should the demonstrations in Kiev be regarded as legitimate and not ours?"

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes, and that the concerns that they are expressing, as I said, have not changed and need to be reflected in national policy.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Finally, first of all, on the question of the elections, Nicolai, there was some discussion, I think, in Berlin for delaying elections. We've seen in the post-Cold War environment that sometimes a rush to elections is not the best course, particularly when a constitution is, shall we say, imperfect or incomplete or there are still elements to be worked on. Is there a serious momentum to think about delaying elections in this case?

I understand, for example, that Mr. Klitschko's group is not taking part in the interim government. There clearly is some jockeying for position taking place.

What's the situation?

NICOLAI PETRO: Klitschko has thrown his support behind Poroshenko, and therefore bolstered his candidacy. He himself will be running for mayor of Kiev.

But the issue of whether or not the elections should be delayed—there was no consensus about that. There is, of course, an argument to be made that the commitment to have a representative president rather than one that is appointed by the parliament for whom there is no constitutional precedent is an important step in the re-legitimization of authority in Kiev.

The counterargument is, well, what would these elections exactly certify if the country is so starkly divided that no party actually represents both sides, so that it would, in fact, only result in the dominance of one side over the interests of the other, rather than in building national unity?

But the most important argument in favor of delaying the elections was that it would be important to first establish a new constitution so that people could understand what type of government they were voting a president to enact, and therefore what authority they were giving to the president.

But again, as I said, this issue is very much debated. There are arguments on both sides.

DAVID SPEEDIE: One final thought on the Valdai Club. Just reading some of the reports from there, Nicolai, one thing that was quite striking was that you have here a group of political—with different views, obviously, different approaches, different political principles, but at least a serious group of people—of political scientists and others in Ukraine, attached to various centers for international studies. Clearly there is some serious thinking being given to the situation.

Is this having any traction at all at the policy level? Is their writing/thinking feeding into the process?

NICOLAI PETRO: I had the opportunity to speak individually to some of the participants with whom I shared a flight back to Ukraine. Some of these individuals were consultants and have advised previous regimes. But they are no longer in favor with the current authorities, who prefer not to call on their expertise.

So there does seem to be rather a polarization at this point, I suspect because the constituencies within the government in Kiev are, in this government, more radical than they have been in any of the past four presidencies. We have people in Berlin who have been actually advisors to all four previous presidents and found advice to give them, which presidents and governments sometimes listened to, sometimes didn't.

But it does seem to be a new time now, when the government is really relying on its own counsel and its own strategies, and perhaps trying to influence and to be guided by Western strategists and Western advice, even more than by the political elites on the opposite side in Ukraine.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Diplomatically put, and not something that fills one full of confidence for the entire prospect for Ukraine.

A final thing—and this is an unreasonable question to ask you—in conclusion and very briefly, Nicolai, the issue of the impact of all this on U.S.-Russia relations, particularly with the situation in the east. I'm sure you probably saw over the weekend that there is now a return to that Cold War guiding star of containment toward Russia, the sense that there can't be substantive engagement on much and that the relationship has descended to this point.

What's your reaction to that?

NICOLAI PETRO: The fact that the West has, in fact, never abandoned containment has been a refrain, I should say, in Russian foreign policy for a while now. So the fact that the United States is now using the term doesn't really change Russia's attitude or affect it whatsoever, because the Russian government had always assumed that the United States was indeed pursuing a policy of containment already.

I would, however, take exception with the characterization, I believe it was in The New York Times today, that John Tefft, the ambassador-designate to Russia from the United States, is somehow almost a Cold Warrior. My experience—I had the privilege of working with him when he was deputy director of the office of Soviet Union affairs in the State Department—my impression of him was as a consummate diplomat and someone who is not prone to taking personal stances, but who will faithfully conduct the instructions of Washington, and moreover, who has no particular ideological baggage to bring to this debate, which is not something one could always have said of his predecessor.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Absolutely.

Well, we'll take what we can get, Nicolai, and on that relatively positive note, we thank you again for joining us from Odessa. As always, your insights as the situation has evolved geographically and otherwise have been absolutely invaluable.

We thank you very, very much.

NICOLAI PETRO: Thank you, David.

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