This post is part of a series on the 2015 Northwest Regional Conference on Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies. This annual event was hosted by the Ellison Center at the University of Washington.
By David Wishard and Greta Starrett
Ukraine loomed large over the 2015 Northwest Regional Conference on Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies. The plenary session focused on East-West Relations During and After the Ukraine Conflict, while the session immediately following addressed the ongoing Conflict in Ukraine.
Which will win out, the refrigerator or the freezer?
The plenary session of the 2015 REECAS NW Regional Conference featured a panel of scholars hoping to diagnose the crisis in Ukraine, including Christopher Jones, Scott Radnitz, Volodymyr Lysenko, and Oleksandr Fisun. The panelists focused on two themes: deducing what the Crimean and Donbass situations indicate about Putin’s future ambitions, and how to reconcile Russia’s recent aggression with the last three decades of relatively peaceful Russo-Western collaboration.
Scott Radnitz reflected in his opening remarks that “‘‘East and West,’ ‘class of civilizations,’ these supposedly old-fashioned notions seem unexpectedly relevant today,” and questioned whether “all hopes for a single space for norms and values have become quaint.”
Oleksandr Fisun mentioned the general concern over Russia’s willingness to enter other former Soviet states if NATO does not hold fast, but was more focused on the future of the domestic power struggle within Ukraine. He spoke about the historical Russian influence on the Ukrainian oligarchs, as well as the disinformation surrounding the violence in the East.
When considering Russian aggression and the propaganda machine within Russia, Volodymyr Lysenko asserted that sanctions would do their work and that increasingly empty Russian refrigerators would eventually be the deciding factor in the average Russian’s relationship with the Kremlin and the West. Chris Jones quickly countered that assertion by saying that the refrigerator may not be the symbol for the new dynamic between East and West, but the freezer, alluding to a frozen conflict and a new Cold War.
Jones, a self-described Atlanticist, described three decades of “remarkable cooperation” between Washington and Moscow, and the equally remarkable swiftness with which Russia has recently this partnership. Jones enumerated the diplomatic triumphs that undergirded the three decade “pillar of peace” between Russia and NATO. Russia’s cooperation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces, the Helsinki Accords, the Budapest Memorandum, and the incremental drawdown of nuclear stockpiles under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty supported the “Atlanticist” profusion of democratic governance and rule-of-law across Europe, NATO and the OSCE’s raison d’être.
Ukraine in conflict, perpetually?
The Conflict in Ukraine panel featured second-year UW MAIS candidate Sarah McPhee, University of Oregon masters student Alekcander Zhdanov, and UW Anthropology Ph.D. candidate Jennifer Carroll. Each panelist presented a different facet of conflict within Ukrainian society.
The politics of nuclear energy
Sarah McPhee presented “The Competition for the Ukrainian Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Rosatom, Westinghouse, and Implications for Nuclear Energy in the Near Abroad.” She explained her concept of an Energy Troika, comprised of Gazprom, Rosneft, and Rosatom (the Russian state nuclear corporation), which strategically coordinates efforts toward energy dominance in the Near Abroad. To illustrate the effectiveness of the Troika, she offered the narrative of the competition between Westinghouse and Rosatom for Ukaine’s nuclear fuel cycle.
According to McPhee, Ukraine has 15 Russian-built “VVER” nuclear reactors, and Ukraine is Russia’s biggest customer for nuclear fuel. Fortunately, the reactors are largely in the West, away from the fighting in the Donbass. She explained that Ukraine was a hub for physics in the 1930s and was known for its uranium and zirconium deposits, but has been dependent upon Russia for nuclear fuel due to a lack of fuel fabrication capabilities and the differences between Russian and Western fuel rod assemblies. She explained that in 1998, the State Department initiated a project called the Ukraine Nuclear Fuel Qualification Project, utilizing Westinghouse to challenge Rosatom’s monopoly on VVER fuel in Ukraine and Central Europe. The United States hopes that the success of this project will help diversify nuclear fuel sources, increase competition, and improve nuclear products and services.
On borders and hegemony
Alekcander Zhdanov presented “The Ukrainian Donbass Territorial Crisis: Internal Civil War or Readjustment of Global Hegemony?” Examining the conflict through a geopolitical lens, he cited scholars such as John Agnew, who questions the territorial traps of the nation-state and the arbitrary nature of borders. Zhdanov also cited Samuel P. Huntington’s theory about the clash of civilizations, concluding that the conflict in Ukraine is not about ideology or the economy, but about cultural incompatibility. Zhdanov stated that Ukraine was not culturally homogeneous and cited a bifurcation when faced with Western values.
Most controversially, Zhdanov alleged that the West was directly involved in the Euromaidan Protests and ousting of President Yanukovich, going so far as to call it a coup d’état. He cited Victoria Nuland’s infamous tapped phone call and as many as twelve sources from Kremlin-backed Sputnik. The panel moderator, Volodymyr Lysenko, challenged him on this point, and the audience quickly became involved. Zhdanov defended his assertions by returning to the concept of borders, explaining how they are often viewed as inviolable without considering ethnicity, language, and political identification.
Controlling the narrative
Jennifer Carroll presented her work on “Image and Meaning: Narratives of the Crisis in Ukraine,” discussing how powerful images may be read in multiple ways, and how the perception of events may be manipulated by the media disseminating carefully constructed scenes. Images contain signs and symbols, semiotics, and rhetoric which create significance and visceral reactions, and the use of modern technology increases the reach and impact of propaganda in an already volatile environment. She explains that the Russian public is constantly fed a supply of staged news, which results in skewed support for Russian intervention in Ukraine and high approval ratings for the Kremlin.
Carroll described the use of random tires as props in scenes crafted by pro-separatist spin doctors, which capitalize upon well-documented tire fires intended to create a noxious barrier and diversion in combat. Carroll also offered staged scenes of pro-Kyiv forces looting, carrying poorly constructed wooden riot shields. She debunked these images by showing the difference between a “lovingly-crafted” shield carried in a legitimate images versus the hastily-made shields for the purposes of propaganda. Carroll was actually in Kyiv studying medical anthropology during the Euromaidan protests, so many of her examples and images were from her own experiences.
David Wishard is a graduate student in the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies (REECAS) and the Evans School of Public Affairs. His research focuses on Russian environmental policy and international development in the Russian Arctic. He recently completed an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
Greta Starrett is a first-year graduate student at the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies. Her research interests include territorial conflict, democracy building, and minority rights in the Caucasus, particularly in the Republic of Georgia. This summer she is participating in a State Department internship in Tbilisi, Georgia.