Weighing in on the crisis in Ukraine

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Students are the driving force behind the protests in Ukraine, and now UW professors have been asked to interpret the international crisis there.

The Political Science Student Association (PSSA) organized a discussion panel March 6 on the crisis in Ukraine.

The panel took questions ranging from the U.S. intervention to the possibility of China acting as a central figure in negotiations.

The panel featured Dr. Alexander Statiev (history), Dr. Tetyana Reichert (German and Slavic studies), and Dr. John Jaworsky (political science), an expert of Eastern European politics. The PSSA said they invited these professors, from three different departments, to hear diverse perspectives and generate debate. 

All three panelists are native Ukrainians and each expressed different opinions on not only the crisis, but also possible solutions and the short-term future stability and outlook of Ukraine. Their disagreement almost directly reflected the divisions between the eastern, central, and western regions in Ukraine adding to the complexity of the situation.

Statiev, who is from western Ukraine, went through a quick review of its “bloody and complex history.” He explained how Ukraine’s corrupt and unstable historical and political culture is one of the main long-term causes that sparked the student-led protests four months ago. 

He continued to say that the corruption during ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s time, rejecting closer relations, and an invitation (not guaranteed membership) to the European Union (EU) put frustrations over the top, particularly in western Ukraine where its inhabitants desire closer relations with the EU, adding more fuel to the fire of protesters in Independence Square in Kiev. 

Reichhert, whose family roots are from both western and eastern Ukraine, observed the role of language in the crisis. Differences in language directly reflect the general internal ethnic divisions within the country.  

In the west, the prominent language is Ukrainian, while in the central regions Creole dominates, and Russian is the language most spoken in the east.

Jaworsky, an expert in Eastern European politics, touched upon these divisions visible in Ukraine along with why the protests originally began. According to him, the west wants closer relations with the EU, while the east is under the sphere of influence of Russia, visible in the previous elections where most of Yanukovych’s support originated from the eastern regions of the country.

Jaworsky argued the fact that a larger portion of the population in Ukraine is educated and influenced by western values (particularly western Ukraine) has ended the era of Ukrainian political culture where citizens adore and idolize their political leaders, unconditionally. The population thinks critically and will question or be suspicious of their political leaders unlike years before. 

He said a larger segment of the population is educated and their views line up with those of western nations. There is an appetite for transparency and equal political and economic freedoms and this appetite led to the demise of a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government.  As Jaworsky pointed out, Ukraine — particularly in the west — does not want to be led by what they call “a Russian defacto” leader in place of ousted Yanukovych.

This is where the challenge lies, he argued. Russia will not give up Crimea since it is an important warm water port and the ousting of Yanukovych is perceived by Putin as weakening his sphere of influence in the region. Jaworsky sees the possibility of western intervention as a positive development for Ukraine in the long term.

In contrast, Statiev argued that whatever the outcome of the crisis, the lives and future of middle and working class Ukrainians is both bleak and filled with uncertainty. If Crimea’s referendum is successful the citizens of the region will be in a Putin-led state where political freedoms are limited and democracy is defined by a game of charades, according to Statiev.

Similarly, he argued that if the new government — legitimized by many western nations and supported by protesters — succeeds, Ukraine’s economic stability would be jeopardized.  The country itself will not only be divided by the succession of Crimea, but possibly be devastated economically because of their deep dependence on Russian oil and natural gas.

Reichert’s argument touched upon aspects argued by both Jaworsky and Statiev. She talked about some of the economic consequences that would result if Ukraine “falls” to the west. She argued that gas prices would increase about 33 per cent due to the elimination of subsidized and discounted energy from Russia, impacting mostly lower- and middle-class Ukrainians. 

Despite this argument, Reichert said she does see a situation where if the right steps are taken diplomatically, the situation in Ukraine can result in a positive outcome. 

All professors came to a consensus when they said they didn’t think Ukraine is heading towards some sort of civil war or would be the spark to some larger international conflict.

After the discussion, Imprint got a chance to interview Jaworsky on some of the latest developments on the crisis in Ukraine, and who said the turnout was “outstanding.” 

Jaworksy commented on Hilary Clinton’s comments regarding the comparison of Putin to Hitler using fascist rhetoric.

“I would never call Putin a Hitler, or say he is acting like Hitler. I don’t think Putin wants war or is ready for it. However, it is fully legitimate to say [and] I think what Hilary Clinton meant is that the rhetoric Russia has used — including Russia’s president — is similar to the language used to justify the annexation of the Sudetenland and Poland back in Nazi Germany.”

Jaworsky mentioned how he himself has compared the same language Putin has used to justify occupation of Crimea to the language used by Hitler to justify his occupation of Poland. He said the fact that Putin is citing and using the Russian minority as the reason for occupying Crimea is “extremely dangerous.”

He added that there is room for optimism because an external threat like Russia can at least temporarily bring different regional and ethnic factions to fight for Ukraine’s full sovereignty, including Crimea. That, in combination with the fact that the crisis is at the “doorstep” of Europe with global economic and social implications, may force the West to intervene and stand up to Russia, who wants to maintain its regional sphere of influence.