How We Might Think about the Ukrainian Crisis. Ronald Grigor Suny

How do you estimate the policy of the Russian Federation towards Ukraine in historical perspective?

The world turned around as it does everyday, but something changed radically in February of this year.  A Great Power suddenly, in a panic, transgressed the norms of international behavior established (and repeatedly broken by its major adversary, the United States) after the Cold War.  From a geopolitical point of view Putin’s policy makes sense, but from a larger perspective it is a disaster.

Is the current Russian policy in the Ukraine conditioned by the logic of historical development of Russia or is it a spontaneous policy based on one man will?

The crisis began with the European Union’s negotiations over an economic association with Ukraine, negotiations from which Russia, a deeply interested power, was excluded.  When President Yanukovich of Ukraine decided not to accept the EU’s offer and instead accept Russia’s offer of significant aid, demonstrations began in Kiev.  Many people in western Ukraine and elsewhere throughout the country saw a better future linked to the West, hoping that the corrupt kreptocracy that had governed Ukraine since the end of the USSR could be overthrown.  The authorities in Ukraine tolerated the demonstrations reluctantly until February when violence broke out.  It remains unclear who started the violence, but the result was the flight of Yanukovich and the formation of a new, someone illegitimate government in Kiev, favorable to the West.  At that point Putin, upset that the February 21 agreement to hold elections and move to a new government had been violated, made his precipitate move into Crimea.

Can we draw historical parallels between what is going on today and the Russian policy of the 1920s, or is the current situation completely different?

Events overwhelmed the makers of those events.  Kiev and the West insisted that their government was legitimate; Russia insisted it was not and accepted the results of the peculiarly held referendum in Crimea to sign a treaty annexing Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation.  The crisis continues with disturbances in eastern Ukraine and the possibility that Russia might escalate the crisis by moving across that border.

Could we claim that the Russian history is a sequence of isolationism and rapprochement with the West?

Many of the comments made about the crisis have been truly mendacious.  Truth once again is the first casualty of war.  Russia has major strategic interests in keeping Ukraine in its orbit, its sphere of influence, but now it has assured Ukraine will move toward the West.  It is likely that Ukraine will become ever more nationalistic and even right-wing, a dangerous unstable situation threatening to Russia.  Putin has made the situation worse not better both for Ukraine and for Russia, not to mention for the international order.  Western commentators blame everything on Putin, but he appears to be more the prisoner of events out of his control than a strong statesman – a Bismarck or de Gaulle – who can act free from popular opinion and the views of his closest cronies.

 How does the current situation accentuate Armenia in historical perspective?

Russia is a great state but a profoundly weak one.  It spends less than 10 percent of what the USA spends on defense.  It can only throw its weight around in its own neighborhood, and even there only with those few states that are not yet members of NATO – Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Caucasian and Central Asian republics.  Russia is now more isolated internationally than any time since the Cold War ended.  Its closest allies, like Armenia, have little choice but to be pulled along in the unfortunate direction in which Russia is moving.  Armenia must hope that Russia will continue to maintain its support for Armenia – support with considerable costs to Armenians – and keep Azerbaijan and Turkey from any moves against the fragile republic.  This may not yet be a second Cold War, but the temperature is dropping and ice is appearing at the margins of the old Soviet bloc.

Ronald Grigor Suny

Drector of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies,

The Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at the University of Michigan,

Emeritus Professor of Plitical Sience and Hstory at the University of Chicago.

INTERVIEW by Sevak Karamyan

March 27, 2014


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