Russia’s relations with the West in general, and the United States in particular, are at their lowest point since the Cold War following a year of civil unrest and open battle in Ukraine. Earlier this year, pro-western protestors in Kiev forced President Viktor Yanukovych to resign and flee the country. In eastern Ukraine, protestors and pro-Russian paramilitary groups have rebelled against the Kiev government, and Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula, part of Russia from the time of Catherine the Great until the Soviet government transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Western governments have imposed trade sanctions on Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has doubled down on his support – material and rhetorical – for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.
What is it that Westerners in general and Americans in particular, don’t know about the dispute between Russia and Ukraine that we should know?
That this is in large measure an information war – fought by all sides. The Ukrainian government, Russian state television, and much of Western media are complicit, knowingly or not, in the presentation of partial truths and untruths. In the West, our favorite story is that of small and virtuous Ukraine fighting monstrous Russia. The reality is more complex, and it does not conform to a morality play. We don’t hear about the Ukrainian army’s recent shelling of a school in Donetsk, about Eastern Ukrainians dying every day, because this information has no place in the scheme of good fighting evil that we seem to be so vested in. We don't hear stories that show how ethnic nationalism tears up a multi-ethnic region, cutting through individual families, with aunts and nephews, husbands and wives no longer on speaking terms. This conflict runs deeper than many popular accounts make it seem, and it will take a huge joint effort to contain it.
How do you propose to improve the terms of reporting on the conflict?
First, by remembering that there are several sides to this conflict and none has a lock on virtue. We need more scholarly expert opinion, paired with investigative journalism, which reflects on the mechanisms of manipulation present in much of the reporting. We might also want to square our views with those of the other side. In general, I recommend listening to the arguments of the other side - there may be something of substance in what they’re saying.
What is President Vladimir Putin’s role in this dispute, and what, do you think, are his goals? Does he want to re-assemble the Soviet Union or the old Russian Empire?
Putin’s role is considerable. Like the judo wrestler he is, he seeks to take his opponents by surprise. His annexation of Crimea was one such surprise move. I don’t think that he has a long-term plan, except to defend Russia’s historical interests as a great power. That’s his core agenda, and many Russians agree with him. When President Yanukovych was overthrown this year, I think Putin saw a danger of all of Ukraine tilting toward the West and joining NATO. He swiftly reacted by orchestrating the secession of the Crimea, a peninsula that holds enormous geopolitical interest and historical significance for Russia. Who knows: If Western leaders accorded Russia more respect, the outcome might be surprising. And, of course, likening Putin to Hitler is way off the mark historically.
What should the United States do, or refrain from doing, that might help defuse the crisis in Ukraine?
Today, the Western sanctions against Russia hurt mainly poorer Russians, and my friends in Moscow are saying that Russians won’t forgive the West for a long time to come. Driving Russia against the wall is a devastating course of action, with no underlying strategy whatsoever. If the United States wants stability and peace in the region, it should not provoke Russia. Last year, during the anti-Yanukovych demonstrations in Kiev, an assistant secretary of state, Victoria Nuland, was filmed walking around Independence Square passing out cookies to the protestors – an action Russians saw as provocative and many Ukrainians as intrusive and condescending. And it would be a good idea for Western politicians to stop demonizing Putin. He’s not going anywhere, and many Russians approve of him when they see him standing up to the West. If, for whatever reason, Putin should leave office before his term ends in 2018, who will succeed him? A moderate Westernizer? I doubt it. Only de-escalation and dialogue will get us out of this crisis.
Shouldn’t Ukraine join Europe?
Yes, I hope to see Ukraine in an enlarged European Union one day. And I sympathize with Ukrainians who are tired of corruption in the political system, in the business world, in their daily lives. I doubt, however, that Russia is the source of this corruption. And I don’t sympathize with thinking that treats the East as backward and the West as progressive. Such thinking only perpetuates the conflict.
Just last month Europe was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. How absurd is it to see these celebrations coincide with the building of a new wall further east. The solution that I see in this critical hour is for Europeans to take the lead and strive for an enlarged idea of Europe that includes both Ukraine and Russia as core component parts.