An interview with Jessica Desvarieux of The Real News Network on April 16, 2014. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News
Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Ukraine's interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has sent armed forces to retake government buildings that were seized by pro-Russian militants last week. This has been the first military action that the transitional government has ever taken, and there is concern that this will escalate the already unstable political situation in Ukraine.
Now joining us to discuss the situation is Nicolai Petro. Professor Nicolai Petro is a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He has been in Ukraine since August as a visiting scholar and has observed the current crisis firsthand.
Thank you for joining us, Nicolai.
NICOLAI PETRO, PROF. POLITICS AND VISITING SCHOLAR, URI: Hello, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Nicolai, we know that the Ukrainian government has taken back an airfield that was seized by militants. How is the transitional government using this takeover to meet their own political goals? And can you give us a sense of how much support there is in Ukraine for these actions?
PETRO: The Ukrainian government at this point needs to show that it can deal with crises of this sort, which it faced before in Crimea and not dealt with very well. Now it's facing the same test in another region of Ukraine, and it's important to the constituencies that brought it to power that it prove its effectiveness in being able to deal with these sorts of challenges, particularly because the whole claim of the revolution was that this government would be more effective than its predecessor.
DESVARIEUX: What about support for these actions? I guess it depends on where you actually sit geographically, right?
PETRO: In the West, support for the revolution has been high, between 70 and 80 percent. So they tend to view the developments in the eastern part of Ukraine as a secession, something illegal in their eyes, a rebellion against a legitimate government. In the eastern parts of Ukraine, 70 percent or so of the population view what happened in Kiev in February as an illegal coup. They see it as merely a challenge to an illegal authority, and [are] therefore trying to reclaim certain rights for themselves that they fear they may have lost.
DESVARIEUX: Let's turn and talk about Russia, 'cause Russia says that they aren't the mastermind behind these takeovers and the calls for referendums to secede from Ukraine. How is the Russian government using this political crisis to meet their own objectives?
PETRO: Russia's objective has been to try to stabilize Ukraine so that it can become again what it was before, which is one of Russia's major trading partners. In order to do that, it has challenged the authority of the central government, which is trying to turn the country toward the West and away from closer integration into the Eurasian Union, which Russia is sponsoring.
On the other hand, what it is attempting to do in the eastern parts is to insist that they be given greater autonomy, because those are the regions that have instinctively closer ties and closer economic connections with Russia. If they were given the autonomy they were asking for from Kiev, they would probably sponsor and strengthen those ties.
DESVARIEUX: And Russia's really come out saying that they need to protect their compatriots in all of this. And I want to speak to specifics, though, on how the new Ukrainian government is in any way alienating ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in Ukraine. Can you speak to specific actions that they've taken?
PETRO: I think the current climate in the East, and to a lesser extent in the South, is not so much one of direct intimidation, but fear of what might happen. They're sort of anticipating the worst in the future if the current government goes ahead with its reforms full-throttle. The precedent that they're thinking of is the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution, when there was a government policy of so-called forced Ukrainianization. The current government, which took over in February, is composed of individuals who are even more radically oriented towards supporting Ukrainianization. As a result, they're fearful that what they lived through before in Yushchenko's administration and which they thought they had defeated in supporting the campaign of Viktor Yushchenko [sic! Yanukovych], might now be coming back even stronger.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. So give us a sense of, though, if Russians themselves are in any way influencing or instigating this divide, because from other interviews that we've had with you, Nicolai, and other guests that we've had on this program, they very much say that it's so integrated, the Ukrainian culture, Russian culture. I mean, there's no clear line.