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Russia Will Want War in Ukraine to Stop

An interview with Richard Farkas, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago. Interviewers: Dariya Hirna and Nataliia Revko

May 22, 2015 - Dariya Hirna Nataliia Revko - Interviews

DARIYA HIRNA, NATALIIA REVKO: Why does the US provide help to Ukraine?

RICHARD FARKAS: In the 1990s, right after independence, Secretary of State Baker came to Ukraine and basically said: ”You have nuclear weapons. If you want to give up those nuclear weapons, we will help you. In the short term and the long term.” And for a long time the US embassy in Kyiv was the largest in the world. We sent agricultural experts, all kinds of people, and the deal was: Ukraine would secretly do away with their nuclear weapons, and we’d send engineers to help and that we will always help Ukraine. So the friendship was struck right then. And it was not just a friendship built on trust. Ukrainians actually got rid of the nuclear weapons. And they took factories like those in Dnipropetrovsk—they used to produce missiles—and converted them. They didn’t produce weapons anymore. That waspersuasive evidence to the Americans that Ukraine wanted to be a peaceful constructive, friendly place. I think that’s the primary reason. That plus all the Ukrainians in the US and Canada are saying “Well, these are the good cousins, they are good people.” But we have got people from all over the world. We have Libyans and Egyptians and Iranians so you cannot easily make the case that because we have some cousins back in the old country, we should be friends. 

Does America have any specific reason to help Ukraine? Maybe America has specific geopolitical considerations in Ukraine.

I do not think so. I think that Americans during the Cold War were told that the EU and the US stepped in and they greatly improved the situation of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic. All those countries are now part of the EU and NATO, and that’s like the orphans being let into the house. The Germans are paying and are the primary financiers. The problem is to answer whether or not we have enough of that. Will the Russians cross that line? If NATO and the US get involved then it will be “Splash!”and the Russians are finished. Moscow will look like a village. But Ukraine is a tough one. It is not well defined. Because of course, it was a part of the Soviet Union and the general perception is that we do not know if it is part of the ‘east’ or the ‘west’. Everybody here has a preference.

Think about it this way: what if there was a demonstration in Canada., and the new regime came to power and stated ”We do not want to be a friend to the US. We want to be a friend of China.” It was a new government, and it was established by breaking the political rules. What would Washington think or do? Canada is our neighbour, we have a long border with them, they help us with our defence, Canada sits between the state of Alaska and the rest of the US. That would be awkward. Do you think that the US would engage itself in changing what happened in Canada? My guess is that it would. I wouldn’t advocate that but I will bet you it would, because of the perceived threat, to have an enemy on your border. In that hypothetical scenario, Canada will have gone to the dark side — maybe even in alliance with Russia! There would be a real sense of threat. Now, it would be different if Canada declared itself neutral. Yeah, OK. But if they said that they are with the enemy, then we would have to do something.

From Moscow’s perspective I think that’s the way they’re looking at Ukraine, just like the US would look at Canada. It has to be either neutral or friendly—but an enemy? It is difficult to choke that down. It’s hard to accept that as a geopolitical reality.

What do you think about the Ukrainian government’s actions since the crisis broke out?

One, I think it is difficult to judge from the outside. And two – I do not think enough time has passed to make a judgement. I could give you an answer, but it would not be an honest answer. When I lecture to people at the university in Ukraine, to politicians, in particular local ones, I say: “Ukrainians are going to have to learn to be more patient, there is no way to create democracy or a liberal system with an event like Maidan.” That does not do it. It takes a complete transformation of official thinking all the way from the top to the bottom. It takes the public to recast what it is and they need to hope that it will happen. You need to try to create a consensus about values. The really bad news? People of young age are going to have to spend most of their lives working on that project. And you might not even see the result, but your children will. That is the tough, bad news. I do not think Ukrainians want to hear that. Every Ukrainian I have met wants to believe that this whole process can be accelerated, that somebody has magical answers, we just have to change some mechanics and good things will happen. Now the real test for young generation is: can it convince itself to stay in Ukraine and do that job? Or will it, like previous generations, leave? For short term advantage, every young Ukrainian with an education can get a good job in Canada or the US. That is tough. Because we need you and you have to decide: short term advantage, or long term possibility.

What about Putin? Do you think that his logic is irrational?

It looks to me that — and it is not an easy idea to sell to Ukrainians — but it looks to me like Putin came to power with no political experience. You understand that if you work in the KGB or in the CIA, you do not ever make policy. You have no political identity at all. You are just a tool. Just a soldier. So he comes to power after 17 years in the KGB. He does not even know what he believes politically. He has been socialised in the old system, feels patriotic, but does not have a clue what that means. He told Yeltsin in 1999: “I am not qualified.” And Yeltsin writes in his biography: “That’s when I knew he’s the right guy.” So he comes to power with no clear sense that he is the leader. And he has no clear sense about where Russia should be going as a country. That is what he does: this way a little bit, and that way a little bit—no consistency. And now people think that he has a grand strategy, but the truth is there is no strategy at all! He was just trying to find out what works, what can keep him in power. He started listening to people, did some things to eliminate opposition. And I think he becomes more and more stupid as he goes on. But I see it as a case of trying to make a system a little bit more democratic and then discover that that means that I have to work a lot harder to keep various groups of people supporting me. I mean, a leader of North Korea doesn’t have to do that. But in Russia things have changed enough so he has to worry about doing things for various groups that make them happy. Actually that is going too far, just to keep them from being in the opposition. And so I think that’s the logic that he thinks he is pursuing. He thinks he’s pursuing a consistent strategy to keep himself in power. But what that means is that he’s not doing things consistently. 

But it looks like he wants to challenge the world and declare the sole right to decide geopolitical processes.

I think he would rather avoid such things. 

But why did he invade Ukraine?

I am not convinced that he made that decision. It seems inconsistent. I was in Sochi at the Olympics. He spent more than anyone has ever spent on the winter Olympics: $51 billion! You understand that the US just committed $17.5 billion to Ukraine and I think that’s a huge pile of money. He spent 51 billion on the Olympics. Why? To improve Russia’s image in world public opinion. In what world would it make sense then to seize Crimea — when you get nothing but trouble! I don’t think he made the decision to do that. 

He might be a person who wants to show everybody that he does not follow international rules and nobody can do anything about it.

OK, if that was the purpose, then why spend $51 billion on the Olympics? What do you get? Why would you spend so much money for six months and say that you are the best, and then do something that proves that you’re the worst. I can’t understand the logic.

I have to conclude that it happened in response to other leaders and he was put in a position where he had to say ‘we did that’. You know the expression—pissed away $51 billion. For this money you could rebuild Moscow! He could have given everybody three times their salary. He could have sent every Russian student to study abroad for $51 billion! Nobody in the world now is talking about the Olympics. Three months after the Olympics they were already talking about Crimea and how evil Russia is.

Do you think that his environment forced him to do that? 

I think what happened is that all armies and all militaries have standing orders. The reason that militaries have standing orders is if the leader is killed, which sometimes happens. Or other terrible things happen. A bomb blows up in the Kremlin and there is no leadership for a few days. The military all have orders about what they are entitled to do. In the Cuban missile crisis Khrushchev had standing orders in Cuba. That the generals in Cuba could use short range nuclear weapons — they were called Frogs — if someone attacked Cuba. They did not have to check with Moscow because the assumption was that it would take too long. Communication was very bad in 1962. So the generals on the spot had the ability to use nuclear weapons if the Americans invaded. I cannot tell you if the generals would have done it. The fact is that it would have killed 200,000 people. Well, the point is that all the militaries have standing orders. If the military marines in Sevastopol had standing orders that said something like “in a crisis situation you have the ability to use local forces to neutralise the Ukrainian military bases in Crimea”, that could be in the envelope, in the closet, in the box. A military commander says: “I will show the world that I am a good, bold commander! I want to prove to the people in Sevastopol that we are going to protect them. Because the Ukrainian government is in disarray, unstable. We are going to make sure that we’re secure here, that this remains Russia.” From their point of view it was Russia. And they said: “We have a treaty with the government. But the government is not the same government. Do we have the treaty or not? That military commander could not have done what he did. Nobody was hurt, I mean it was kind of slick. And if that happened, Putin worries that not appearing to take control of the Ukrainian bases in Sevastopol or in Crimea generally would weaken him. What does Putin do? Does he say: “Please, leave”? The generals in Crimea say: “It’s done. We have that. It is controlled. Do you really want me to go back and give it up?”

So he did not want to show others that he does not control the situation…

In my view that is exactly what happened. Now it may take years to prove that. You remember what happend in Georgia. Two years later, Putin fired all the generals despite the fact that they were successful. This time Putin fired all the FSB-people responsible for intelligence in Ukraine. He did not even wait. And my guess is that whoever made the decision in Crimea will be fired soon. But who will know that? Does the Ukrainian public know that? Does the Russian public know that? Maybe some people who watch carefully everyday will know it.

What are the problems that Crimea and DNR are likely to face nowadays?

It is going to be a disaster. There is no solution. Microstates or mini-states simply cannot compete in a modern world. Ask yourself if there are eight hundred major multinational corporations, which ones will invest in Crimea? None.

What is Crimea’s going to become as a part of Russia? It is going be a hole the Russians will have to throw money into. It is going to be a terrible cost.

How do you see the future of Crimea? Is it ultimately going to be a part of Russia or Ukraine?

If the killing stops in eastern Ukraine, I think you will see that the negotiations will turn Crimea back to Ukraine. I think the Russians will ask for sovereignty over Balaklava and Sevastopol. And that would be a compromise. That is all they want anyhow. They really do not want Crimea. They do not want 250,000 Tatars who will resist eventually. They will fight against the Russian Federation. I think there is a potential political settlement there. But it cannot happen as long as the fighting continues in eastern Ukraine.

What, do you think, is the solution of the crisis in the east of Ukraine?

The most likely situation is that fighting stops because Russia will want it to stop. Why? Because they are doing poorly. It is costing a lot of money and killing people. It would be one thing if you could convince me that they really want to control everything in Eastern Ukraine. But that is not an option anymore. Imagine the cost that it will take to reconstruct that even if that became a part of the Russian Federation. And that is not what the separatists want. They talk about Novorossiya the new mini-state, right? What a disaster! Who is going to be a politician in charge? Who is going to pay for new hospitals? What are they going to produce? Factories are destroyed. If the peace holds, international aid organizations will jump in with unbelievable lots of money. Humanitarian aid, infrastructure, the roads will get rebuilt, factories will get rebuilt.

What is going to be the fate of the leaders of DNR and LNR?

Well, they can do what Yanukovych did and go to Russia as heroes. I think it will be dangerous if they do anything else.

Recently you stated that Putin might control Russia for a long time, approximately until 2032.


Does this mean that the conflict between Ukrainians and Russians will continue?

Well, I am not sure. I think Russia needs Ukraine badly as a customer for oil and gas. So I think there will be a time when Putin will try to do something more positive. He and Poroshenko apparently have conversations. You know, they have notbeen hitting each other. I think if Putin got the impression that the regime in Kyiv was going to be there for a while, was going to be stable, they would have more discussions. From the old Soviet Union there are still a lot of Ukrainian products that the Russians depend on. There is a company called Uralmash which makes the biggest metal things in the world. They still depend on Ukrainian wooden molds to make those things. The Russians make radios, and they still depend on Latvia for the components. Russia does not have a powerful economy. And it isa little surprising to me that Putin is willing to cause the people real hardship to take these positions. Remember, Americans were attacked at Pearl Harbor and a lot of people were killed.If five years after the Second World War we could be friends with the Japanese, I suspect you can find a way to be friends with the Russians again. Ukrainians have much more in common with the Russians than Americans did with the Japanese. Those cultures were completely different. And there hasnever been any brotherhood as there was in this part of the world. If you wanted to make an argument, to make peace with the Russians, you could do it. You could emphasise the commonness and put aside the differences. There will always be people in Ukraine with vivid memories of the conflict and a killing. They will be hard to convince. But the next generation? Maybe not…

Richard Farkas is a professor at DePaul University in Chicago. His research focuses on politics of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Dariya Hirna is a student at the Ukrainian Catholic Unversity (School of Journalism) and works as a journalist at “Hromadske TV”.

Nataliia Revko is a student of master’s programme in Media Communications at the Ukrainian Catholic University.

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