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PANEL | On thin ice, no ‘good options’ in Ukraine

Glance through a dirty window

May 18, 2015

By Sarah McPhee

There was once a time when diplomats could enter smoke-filled rooms and partition half of Europe between their rulers before finishing their cigars. In the 21st century, conflicts and diplomacy are far more immediate and challenging. Our campus is smoke-free, but the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies gathered a panel of four experts in one room to discuss real-world options to resolve this conflict approximately one year following the annexation of Crimea. Moderated by UW Associate Professor Scott Radnitz, the panel brought together experts on finance, culture, and politics to discuss the long road ahead for Ukraine and Russia: Is There Any Way Out?


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“The Balance of Power”

Scott Radnitz, Faculty Director of the Ellison Center, observed that everyone is ‘stuck’ in this quagmire. “Ukraine can’t defeat Russia, Putin can’t back down but doesn’t want to go too far, and in the US politicians care more about beating Russia than Ukraine for its own sake.”

If there is nowhere to maneuver, what options do these leaders have? Radnitz suggested that even in the 20th century, more choices existed for leaders to resolve conflicts. There was once a time when the West would guarantee that NATO would never include Ukraine, recognize autonomy in the East and in return there would be peace and nonaggression. Such a solution may appeal to realist diplomats such as Henry Kissinger, but agreements which carve up smaller countries are no longer politically feasible. “Today we do not look to the Congress of Vienna for ideas,” Radnitz concluded.

Nevertheless, the stakes are high in the conflict and the calculations must be carefully considered on all sides. Radnitz warned that Putin may ‘win’ in the short term, but the invasion of Crimea and his support of the separatists is a long-term gamble which could eventually become ‘messy’– and in Russia, “messiness happens on a grand scale.”

Ukraine, new ‘sick man of Europe’

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 11.47.28 AMVisiting Ukrainian scholar Oleksander Fisun understands what ‘messiness’ looks like. He believes that the ultimate losers of this conflict will not be the leaders, but as in every armed conflict, the ordinary people. At best, Ukrainians are living through tough times, and at worst, they are suffering and dying. Russians are becoming more isolated and watching their quality of life decline.

Fisun asserted that Maidan was largely symbolic, and that oligarchic support of Maidan explains the escape of Yanukovych. He noted that the events failed to remove the role of oligarchy in government and did not change the social contract. He conceded that the current government is the most competent since independence, but believes that it is still too weak when compared to the oligarchs.

The greatest challenge Ukraine faces is overcoming the stranglehold of the oligarchs, who operate within a system of patrimonial democracy. Within this paradigm,  patron-client networks are entrenched within regional strongholds, and  loyalty is demanded for access to state revenue. The oligarchs, whose graft cripples the already precarious Ukrainian economy, are certain to clash with  the IMF. Fisun cited experts who believe that the gray/black economy may account for as much as 60% of the Ukrainian economy.

Being There

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Molotov cocktails and burning tires have become familiar themes in media depictions of the fighting in Ukraine.

Jen Carroll, a UW Anthropology Ph.D. Candidate, focuses on public health and happened to be studying in Kyiv during the Maidan protests. She had the opportunity to witness the realities Ukrainian economy first-hand.

She described the suffering in Ukraine caused by a collapsed currency, as debts, mortgages and loans were all tied to the dollar. She described the delivery of pensions by intrepid souls with fanny packs. Business have folded and people lament their inability to travel to find work for their families. She questioned what the $17.5 billion in IMF loans will mean for Ukraine when austerity policies create even more hardship, and so much of the GDP is embezzled by oligarchs.

Carroll described the difference between the perception of the war in the Donbass and the reality, particularly when presenting images of volunteers. She insisted that mass media outlets will use caricatures of soldiers to brand the war to the satisfaction of the worldview promoted by their owners, but “the craziest people with the broadest shoulders and biggest guns are minorities and not representative of the [volunteer battalions].” As a medical anthropologist, she describes the value and immediacy of modern technology, which allows soldiers to send war zone selfies featuring the next meals.

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Not much of a choice.

In describing the fighting in Ukraine, she explained that it is “surreal, surreal, surreal.” In the east, elections in the east were monitored by armed soldiers and interest groups handed out root vegetables to voters. The humanitarian cost has been tremendous, and the masses of displaced Ukrainians cannot register to vote or get housing because these civic processes are regionally organized. Carroll believes that Moscow seeks a frozen conflict, to create spaces in limbo like South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria, but people on all sides are tired and want to go home. “People would agree to almost any resolution to end the conflict.”

Russia heavily invested in Ukraine

The sanctions which followed the Crimean annexation have hurt many Russian businesses hard, but there have been far-reaching global consequences as well. Derek Norberg, the Executive Director of the  Russian-American Pacific Partnership (RAPP), examined the “official position” of the Russian Federation in this crisis. RAPP is a bilateral forum intended to engage the private-sector and governments to promote trade between the Russian East and the United States, established in 1994. Initially it was funded by the US Department of Commerce, but more recently the organization depends upon funding from USAID and private sector contributions.

Norberg insisted that Putin is not interested in reestablishing the USSR, but rather logically seeks to advance the interests of the Russian Federation. He described Ukraine’s rapid move to the West in February 2014 as a provocation which prompted a knee-jerk reaction from Putin. Compounded by missile defense initiatives around Russian borders and the contention over negotiations with Iran, Russia feels justified in its decision.Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 12.15.57 PM

Norberg admitted that Putin is heavily invested in Ukraine joining the Eurasian Economic Union, financially and politically. He insisted that when Yanukovych began to entertain the EU Association Agreement, Russia could feel its influence slipping in Ukraine, and the potential loss of the naval base at Simferopol (especially to NATO) was particularly untenable. In Putin’s mind, Kosovo set a precedent for intervention, and once again Russia felt as though it was left with limited options and no good choices.

The wide spectrum of expertise and range of views on the panel was narrowed to a singular agreement —  a frozen outcome is the best we can hope for at this point for relations between Russia, Ukraine and the West — and things will not get better for the foreseeable future.