February 4, 2014

The last two months have been an increasingly tumultuous time for Ukraine, following President Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the negotiated Association Agreement with the EU in November. The nation, caught between Europe and Russia, is experiencing new heights of upheaval, and what began as a debate between pro-EU and pro-government factions has become a fight over the country’s deep-rooted domestic issues.

On Febuary 4, just a week after the EU-Russia summit, CGI hosted a panel with Dr. Matthew Rojanksy, Director of the Kennan Institute, and Dr. Oksana Nesterenko, visiting Fulbright-Kennan scholar, to discuss the implications of the opposition movement both on Ukraine itself and on a more broad geopolitical scale. During the panel discussion, moderated by CGI President Nikolai Zlobin, both speakers agreed that the situation is more than just a street protest – Ukraine is facing the very real possibility of descent into a disastrous situation.

Dr. Nesterenko began the discussion by arguing that the opposition has no chance of success without considerable support from both the European Union and the U.S. She pointed out that there are large sections of society that support Yanukovych, either because they benefit directly from his administration, or because they depend on the government. Additionally, she stated that Yanukovych would never willingly step down from power. Nesterenko posited that there are only two ways demands for a snap election would be met: either Russia stops supporting Yanukovych’s government or the West imposes severe sanctions. Though the majority of Ukrainians support an association with Europe, they will not be able to achieve this aim alone.

Dr. Rojansky began his presentation by describing Ukraine as simultaneously “the phantom limb of the Russian Empire” and “the heart of Russia.” The ties binding Ukraine to its powerful eastern neighbor are incredibly strong, including the Russian language, a shared media space, and family. The two countries are also economically inter-dependent. Rojansky accepted as fact that Russia’s economy would have suffered as a result of a free trade association between Ukraine and the EU. At least in the short and medium term, Russia’s energy business depends on Ukraine, and Ukrainian oligarchs depend on the import of Russian gas.

Rojansky points out significantly that, though the protests do have an anti-Russian component, since January their main focus has been on domestic problems. However, Russian media has fixated on the nationalist aspect of the opposition movements. The government views the Ukrainian opposition as a serious threat, as increased cooperation with Europe and, by extension, NATO, is perceived as a direct attack on Russian interests. Simultaneously, the government has found the disorder in Kiev to be a useful instructive to its own population on the necessity of a strong power vertical.

In closing, Dr. Rojansky insisted that the West needs to come up with a ‘red line’ and a plan of action, stating that the “concern” expressed by the U.S. government “is not a policy.” He differed from Nesterenko, however, by saying that sanctions would be a mistake. Instead, he supported the position of the U.S. and Europe extending meaningful financial support to the country. The dissolution of the Ukrainian state would have a disastrous effect on geopolitical stability in the region, and demands a serious strategy from the U.S. So unanswered question is: what to do?

When asked about possible outcomes of the conflict, Nesterenko immediately stated her support for revolution. Citing her own experiences and those of her friends and relatives in Ukraine, she painted a picture of a nation that had already failed its people. Rojansky had in mind four scenarios, in order from most favorable to least: a coalition government formed from de facto opposition leaders, an interim technocratic government put in place until elections in early 2015, early elections as demanded by the protesters, or a bitter and bloody fight initiated by a cornered Yanukovych.

A lengthy discussion between the audience and the panel covered a wide range of topics, including the implications on nuclear deterrence, the role of Ukraine’s neighbors in the conflict resolution, a possible split in the opposition, and the unique potential of the Crimea to perhaps spur Russia into helping the West find a peaceful solution.

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