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Crisis in Ukraine: The View from Beyond Kiev

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An interview with David C. Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, first published on February 20, 2014. 

DAVID SPEEDIE: Nicolai, welcome to the Carnegie Council.

NICOLAI PETRO: Hello, David. How are you?

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm very well, thanks.

Let's get right to the heart of the matter, Nicolai. There are new and dramatic and disturbing, and sometimes tragic, headlines from Ukraine every day--protesters and police fatalities, truces that are broken, army chiefs sacked. It's a very dramatic picture. However, much of what we get in the West is, of course, coming from the prism of Kiev.

You are in the South, in Odessa. Can you give us a sense of what the view is from where you are?

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes. The situation is indeed different in each of the regions. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the pattern of violence seems to split along the electoral pattern that we have seen repeated through each election cycle.

There seems to be a core in the Western regions and part of the Central regions that favor a more pro-Western orientation for their policy, and certainly support more of a Ukrainian vision of the country. And in the East and the South we have regions that are closer culturally, spiritually, and probably politically as well, to Russia.

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I should stress, however, that both sides within this single nation, although they represent different cultural and religious and linguistic backgrounds, consider themselves to be thoroughly Ukrainian patriots and they would like to be able to live together, so long as they can resolve these current political conflicts.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Specifically, however, the scenes in Kiev, are they being replicated in Odessa in any way?

NICOLAI PETRO: The scenes in Kiev, the violence against government forces and government buildings, have been replicated in certain cities in the Western regions and as far east as Opava, which is just a few hours east of Kiev. But the rest of the country has reacted, the East and the South, very negatively to this sort of behavior and has, indeed, rallied in each region behind, not just the government, but, in the face of the government's inaction, they have begun to form vigilante self-defense groups to try to prevent the what they consider incursions from the West into their regions. That's certainly true here.

Whereas in the West the political establishment has rallied behind the opposition, in the East and the South we see instead governors calling for the introduction of martial law in Kiev and the restoration as soon as possible of law and order there.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, when you speak of vigilante groups stepping into a sort of government vacuum as it were, Nicolai, you seem to be indicating a pretty dire situation. I guess it was last week, former president Kravchuk spoke of Ukraine being on the brink of civil war. Is that something that you see as being an accurate assessment?

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You have also expressed the opinion that martial law, while leading perhaps to more deaths and violence, it's hard to imagine how law and order can be restored without it. Again, is that still something you adhere to?

NICOLAI PETRO: With respect to civil war, I actually don't see civil war as a likely outcome for two reasons.

If the violence ends, or is somehow subdued, then the country will muddle along. Maybe the sides won't be happy with each other, but they will have worked out some way to shift the conflict to a rhetorical one rather than a physical confrontation. That will allow at least for the country to--as I say, muddle along is the best image I can conjure up for it.

If, however, the violence and lawlessness escalate, then I don't really see why either side in this debate, given their fairly stringent positions and values that they associate with those positions, why they would want to live together. In other words, for a civil war to occur, one side has to want to coerce the other side or conquer the other side. I think at that point, if the violence escalates, the East will not want to be with the West and the Western parts will simply say, "Well, those Easterners are just Muscovite slaves, or something, and let them go wherever they want to."

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)
 

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