Ukraine Crisis a ‘Hot Reflection of the Cold War:’ Interview with Konstantin Bondarenko

July 28, 2014

In the fifth installment of the Ukraine Crisis Interview Series, CGI spoke with Konstantin Bondarenko, a Ukrainian journalist, writer, politician, and historian. In 2002, he advised Viktor Yushchenko’s parliamentary campaign and worked with Donetsk political parties in 2004 elections. He is currently the head of the Ukrainian Policy Institute (a Ukrainian think-tank) and an editor of “Left Coast,” a newspaper combining both journalism and opinion pieces. 

CGI: In your opinion, what are the conditions for settling the conflict in the east?

KB: The conflict can only be settled through negotiation. The “anti-terrorist” operation [of the Kiev government] is a dead-end pursuit that won’t benefit either side. In the current situation, it’s imperative that we formulate the main points of the negotiations, and involve all the main players in the talks – the United States, Russia and the EU – to serve as mediators, rather than as outsiders attempting to push their interests onto the negotiating parties.

Do you believe in the possibility of a dialogue between Kiev and the east, given their past inability to compromise?

The talks that took place earlier were not between two official sides. They also focused on resolving the immediate situation rather than the problem at large. For example, they talked about whether or not they would exchange prisoners of war, or whether they would have a temporary cease-fire to allow for the creation of a humanitarian corridor. In other words, they only discussed tactical questions but didn’t touch on the strategic questions that lie at the heart of the conflict.

You have spoken out against the federalization of Ukraine. Why?

I see federalization as a tool to end the crisis, but certainly not as the main objective. If the two sides decide that federalization could help resolve the conflict, then this tool should be implemented. But federalization by itself does little; there are a number of larger problems that need to be resolved, like the identity that’s begun to form in eastern Ukraine, the problem of inter-regional relations within Ukraine, and relations between the Kiev authorities and regional elites. Another issue is the distribution of property between the oligarchs and their opponents, as well as between the oligarchs themselves – we know that [Dnipropetrovsk Governor Ihor ] Kolomoisky, for example, wants to take over the property of Rinat Akhmetov and the other Donetsk businessmen.

If we had to write a formula for peace in Ukraine, this formula would be very long and would include a large number of factors to consider. Federalization is just one possible component.

Do you think the separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk have any independent policy or authority, or are they simply puppets of the Kremlin?

The people who have joined the separatist groups come from a variety of different backgrounds. Some of them are people who simply were desperate, and their revolt is a social one. For others, this is a political revolt against western authorities, who they see as imposing a foreign world onto their region. For still others, this is a geopolitical choice between Russia and the West. Some joined the separatists out of anger after one of their own family members was killed, or because they felt personally wronged by the western authorities. This is a very diverse group, and we can’t say it has one overarching idea for the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics.

The other issue is that the two “republics” are made up of a series of poorly-coordinated structures that include many questionable individuals. The residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics live in constant fear of being victimized by the eastern separatists on the one hand, and by the members of Kolomoisky’s militias, which call themselves “self-defense battalions,” on the other. And they are more afraid of Kolomoisky’s militias than of the separatists. So that also needs to be taken into account.

Some Russian experts and politicians claim that what happened in Kiev was a Western-backed coup, making the current government illegitimate. What is your view?

It was not a military a coup, but a violation of the Feb. 21 agreement between President Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition. The guarantors of this agreement were the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, who took on the responsibility of seeing it through. Yanukovych agreed to hold early elections and make changes to the constitution. But two days later, the opposition broke up the talks and carried out a de-facto overthrow by relieving the president of his duties in an unconstitutional manner.

Yanukovych, meanwhile, did not fight to keep his powers and instead fled the country, thereby delegitimizing himself even in the eyes of his supporters. As a result, the situation is very complicated: on one hand, the Yanukovych government gave up its power, but on the other hand, the people who came to power were self-appointed.

You have referred to the above situation as a ‘parade of illegitimacy.’ Is it possible for Poroshenko to come to some political compromise with the east?

They’ve reached a partial compromise, as seen in the recent presidential elections—even if the residents of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk didn’t take part. The winner was Petro Poroshenko, so we can say that the legitimacy of the government has been restored.

Do more extreme groups such as Right Sector and Svoboda have a future in Ukrainian politics, or were they simply used as muscle and will now be phased out?

In a stable society, these powers will gradually be phased out on their own. If the public grows tired of war and there is no demand for military action, then the parties promoting a military approach will become marginalized and disappear. It’s a self-regulating process.

You mentioned that you see Ukraine’s Communist Party benefiting from a weaker Party of Regions. Do you see the Communists as playing a significant role in representing the interests of eastern Ukraine? [Note: Ukraine’s Communist party was recently dissolved for having fewer members than when it was formed at the first session of parliament.]

The Communist party has always had its own stable electorate, from 5-10% of the population. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to clear the parliamentary threshold. We are currently witnessing a break in the Communist party: the younger members have distanced themselves from the party or are looking for new forms of political engagement, while the leader of the Communists, [Petro] Symonenko, has been somewhat discredited. But the brand of communism will continue to be in demand, especially among the older generation in eastern Ukraine.

The Party of Regions has broken into three parts, all of which are planning to take part in elections. The group controlled by Rinat Akhmetov and Borys Kolesnikov is the most promising in terms of electoral success. The second group is the Ukraine Development Party, led by Sergey Larin and Yury Miroshnychenko, a newer party whose electoral niche is still hard to identify. The third group is the Strong Ukraine party, which merged with the Party of Regions in 2012 and is now once again independent. It’s under the influence of Ihor Kolomoisky but is formally led by Serhiy Tihipko.

How should the United States and Europe approach this crisis?

They should approach it with a constructive position and with the understanding that Ukraine is not a battlefield for political maneuvering. We can see clearly that what’s happening in Ukraine is a hot reflection of the Cold War between the United States and Russia. We understand that their mutual desire to prove each other wrong is one of the causes behind the events taking place in the country.

What is the future of Crimea?

The most we can achieve at present is a negotiation process with Russia that will establish Crimea’s status as a territory under foreign jurisdiction, similar to that of Gibraltar or Jerusalem, or to the 1998 Good Friday agreement [that created Northern Ireland’s devolved system of government]. A similar formula could work for Crimea.

How will Ukraine protect its sovereignty in the future, given that the Budapest Memorandum has failed?

The future of Ukrainian sovereignty depends exclusively on the extent to which we can reform the system of defense and security in Europe. This system has not been reevaluated since its beginning with the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Accords and the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and it’s in need of modernization. The 1975 agreement stipulated that existing European borders were inviolable. But in the past 10 years this agreement has been violated four times, not to mention earlier violations that didn’t have serious international consequences. But Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Kosovo and now Crimea are four instances of a direct violation of the OSCE agreement.

We need a new agreement for security and cooperation in Europe, along with specific mechanisms for upholding the territorial integrity of European states. This could include the creation of international armed forces that would prevent acts of aggression or attempts at separatism in various areas. This would serve as a security guarantee, not only for Ukraine but for other countries as well, against separatism from within and aggression from without.

In one of our earlier interviews, Volodymyr Tsybulko mentioned that direct security agreement with the United States was the only way to safeguard Ukraine. Would you favor such an agreement?

I don’t know how popular this agreement will be in the United States, especially in the run-up to the November midterm elections, and whether Obama will embark on certain actions that might be misrepresented by his political opponents.

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