Ukraine has been in conflict since 2014, when President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, and Russian troops annexed the Crimea region. Fighting has been off-and-on ever since, with Russian-armed separatists in the eastern Ukraine region of Donbass fighting against pro-government forces. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates over 9,600 people have been killed in the violence, and 1.1 million Ukrainians have become migrants or refugees.
Volodymyr Dubovyk, the director of the Center of International Relations at Odessa National University in Ukraine, told KGOU’s World Views the conflict cannot be looked at strictly as a civil war.
“In many ways it's a civil war by some formal signs of it when you actually have one group of Ukrainians shooting at another,” Dubovyk said. “But at the same time it's not a civil war because it wouldn't be happening without the intervention of one major external player, being the Russian Federation.”
Ukraine never fought a war of liberation when it gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Now, Duboyvk says Russian leader Vladimir Putin is trying to take back pieces of land and keep Ukraine on a short leash.
“Some experts actually call it a Ukrainian-Soviet war, meaning that Ukraine is trying to break away from that cycle with both Soviet corruption and authoritarian models of leadership,” Dubovyk said.
Ukraine and Russia have many historical and cultural ties. Following independence, Dubovyk says many Ukrainians wanted their country to have a close relationship with Russia and remain in Moscow’s sphere of influence. However, Putin’s recent actions have destroyed that prospect.
“It's not just about the political elite or the government of Ukraine, it's about the public which turned decisively anti-Russia because of this recent aggression in Crimea and ongoing aggressions in Donbass,” Dubovyk said.
In Dubovyk’s view, Ukraine has only one option now - to look to the West for support. But there are major hurdles. NATO membership or acceptance into the European Union both seem like a long-shot at this time. Ukraine applied for membership to NATO in 2008, but the alliance rejected it.
“That's a problem for us because we are not part of that collective security architecture system that is there in NATO,” Dubovyk said.
The United States still has sanctions against Russia for the seizure of Crimea. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is “sending mixed signals,” Dubovyk says. Some figures in the current U.S. administration say one thing about the Crimea conflict, while the President says another.
“Press Secretary Sean Spicer mentioned in one of the briefings that President Trump believes Russia should return Crimea to Ukraine. But then, at the same time, we know of Mr. Trump's history of making clear pro-Russian, pro-Putin statements,” Dubovyk said.
Dubovyk acknowledges the importance of good U.S. and Russia relations. However, he is concerned that poor relations between the two countries could lead to Ukraine becoming a “battleground” between them. On the other hand, a cozy relationship between Russia and the United States could normalize Putin’s actions.
“If we see this country, the United States, actually continuing to pursue this idea of normalizing relations with Russia at a time when Putin is doing what he's doing to Ukraine, that would be a bad thing,” Dubovyk said.
On Russia's military presence in Ukraine
They have a lot of tanks. You know they have hundreds of new tanks that are produced by Russia. They have an unlimited supply of weaponry coming from Russia, and also Russian volunteers, and at several points of time, apparently there have been Russian military fighting also in Donbass against Ukrainian troops and those who have been involved directly in training their proxies to fight against Ukrainian troops. The funding is coming from Russia apparently. And that's how it is. The border that the Donbass region has with Russia is beyond Ukraine's control. So we don't know what's going on there. They send convoys all the time across the border so that's how it is.
On the conflict in Ukraine and hopes for the future
It's not a civil war, it’s really a Russia-Ukraine conflict, and in many ways actually a lot of people think it's probably some kind of a delayed war for independence over Ukraine because we got our independence back in 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed. So there was no war involved there. But right now Russia is kind of trying to get some pieces of land from us and actually keep us in the tight leash in their sphere of control and we're fighting against that. So it’s some kind of a liberation war. And also, like I said, it's also about the future for Ukraine and the whole post-Soviet space for that matter because Putin is very afraid of Ukraine being successful in democratic transformation. So in many ways some experts actually call it Ukrainian-Soviet war, meaning that Ukraine is trying to break away from that cycle with both Soviet corruption and authoritarian models of leadership.
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Cruise: Professor Volodymyr Dutovyk, welcome to World Views.
Dutovyk: Good to be here.
Cruise: Well you are a historian. And now more recently a scholar of international relations. And you are also from Ukraine and so civil war in Ukraine has been going on for about three years. In February of 2014, we of course saw the protests that led to the ouster of the President Yanukovych. Shortly thereafter in March we saw Russia take over Crimea and then the struggle for the Donbass region of Ukraine. We then consequently saw some peace talks, and we haven't really heard all that much about what's going on in this country but certainly much has been going on. Maybe you can give us an update.
Dutovyk: Sure. Well first of all in that picture that you've just painted, one important moment was in between February events of 2014 and the start of the struggle for Donbass and that it was the Russian annexation of Crimea. And that was in the March of 2014 that which was actually the start of Russian aggression against Ukraine, which is ongoing. And that's exactly what we have in Donbass because a lot of us belief, and I myself among them, that was out Russian interference, there would know there would be no bloodshed in Donbass whatsoever. There would be no single shot being fired. So in many ways it's a civil war by some formal signs of it when you actually have one group of Ukrainians shooting at another. But at the same time it's not a civil war because it wouldn't be happening without the intervention of one major external player being the Russian Federation.
Cruise: And Russia has always been very hesitant to say that they are involved but we have plenty of evidence to suggest that they are. The plane that was shot down that was a Russian missile...
Dutovyk: That’s right. And they have a lot of tanks. You know they have hundreds of new tanks that are producing produced by Russia. They have an unlimited supply of weaponry coming from Russia and also Russian volunteers, and at several points of time, apparently there have been Russian military fighting also in Donbass against Ukrainian troops and those who have been involved directly in training their proxies to fight against Ukrainian troops. The funding is coming from Russia apparently. And that's how it is. The border that the Donbass region has with Russia is beyond Ukraine's control. So we don't know what's going on there. They send convoys all the time across the border so so that's how it is. The fighting is ongoing, actually in the middle of February or saw late February, as well where escalation the fighting over the town of Avdiikva which was defended by Ukrainian troops and then attacked by pro-Russian troops which involves a lot of heavy weaponry actually, like missiles, Grad missiles, and stuff like that. The war other hand there is really not a small scale thing, you know, when you only have like gunfights. You actually have airplanes involved. You have tanks, you have armored carriers and stuff like that. It's really a wide, wide scale kind but still low intensity but. But the big war in the middle of of Ukraine.
Dutovyk: At the same time, indeed Ukraine, is trying to achieve much more than just not to lose this conflict over Donbass. We are trying to come forward with reforms, eradicate corruption which is an ambitious ambitious plan for reforms. The problem of corruption has been there with us for years and years.
Cruise: How can the government do that while also trying to fight this battle and having the large bear of Russia involved as well?
Dutovyk: Yeah it's a big, it's a big issue and that's not easy. And we understand that a lot of our friends in the West understand that as well. But people in Ukraine we also think that you shouldn't just find this war in Donbass as an excuse for not doing enough on domestic front. And the government of Ukraine should do more in terms of proceeding with the reforms. And they are proceeding with the reforms. It's just that those reforms are not happening as quickly as we would like them to be. There are many extremes often when the people look at the reforms of Ukraine. Some say nothing is changing and that's not true. Others are saying trying to paint big picture some kind of paint some kind of rosie situation. They're saying everything's fine, which is also not true. So someone in the in the middle really between those two extremes. The reforms are ongoing. But there was a lot of hesitations and deviations here and there. Ukraine government finds itself this in a situation when we have to push it in the right direction and force them to do the right thing. By we I mean the Ukrainian civil society, NGOs, civil activists, and also our friends in the West. So in a way for the last three years it's always been but now it's even more critical and even more visible. The Ukrainian civil society is a natural ally of the friends of Ukraine in the West who on the one hand wouldn't like to abandon Ukraine vis-a-vis Russian aggression. But on the other, understand that Ukraine would be much stronger if successful with those reforms because one of the things why Putin is waging that war on Ukraine is he wants us to fail.
Dutovyk: So he wants to say that he's a sort of Sharon model of what he constructed in Russia is one which is perfectly fitting for the post-Soviet space. And we are in Ukraine are trying to say no we would like to construct a democratic country, transparent one with good governance with free media was free and fair election. So we're trying to fight that war which is not just about territorial integrity but also about the future model for the country.
Cruise: And civil society has been quite strong in the past decade. In 2004, the first kind of Orange Revolution and then here in 2014. Was that always the case in Ukraine or is that something...
Dutovyk: Not at all. Actually Ukraine has been known for years as a very passive politically country. A lot of people never bother even to show up at the elections. There was this tradition of overbearing patience with what the government does or doesn't do. Ukraine Ukraine has been known for very kind to people who are ready to just get along with whatever government is in place. And that's strange in the way that we have this two massive political movements, protest movements. It was in just 10 years first in season four and then 2014. Ukraine has kind of woke up in many ways. You know in the first case it was a massive falsification, it was elections. And that Maidan movement, Maidan being the big square in Ukrainian, you know that was different from what we had 10 years later because the first Maidan revolution was bloodless and it was only about the results of elections. So we had a rerun of elections round and that was it. End of the political crisis. But then the second Maidan 10 years later, was different because we already had some people who had been shot at in Maidan movement and also then the Russian aggression started right away. So it's different. And that's why a lot of Ukrainians say that the mistake of the first revolution, the Orange Revolution, that we had, shouldn't be repeated.
Cruise: You have to stay engaged.
Dutovyk: We have to stay engaged because a lot of people thought we now have a right guy in power and that's it. He is just going to be delivering. And we're going to just be relaxing sitting back and enjoying ourselves. But that's not how it was because Mr. Yushchenko who got to be president after the Orange Revolution of 2004, you know, he was a kind of weak and timid, indecisive leader. He didn't pursue reforms and everyone got just disappointed and disillusioned. And here in the West you had Ukraine fatigue for a number of years and a lot of people said oh Ukraine is just hopeless. But we're not trying to say and provide the example of the opposite that we are not and the people are being engaged. There is a lot of public activism in Ukraine right now.
Cruise: So civil society needs to remain engaged. But you still have the situation where this civil war for lack of a better word is happening. Is there any resolution in sight? What's being done by the West, by Russia, by the Ukrainian government to try to end the conflict here?
Dutovyk: Well we're fighting the conflicts right now. So the focus on both sides is not losing and fighting. And we have a lot of people there in the trenches with Ukrainian side who are there not necessarily thinking about how to end it, even though they're tired and exhausted by being in those trenches. And we're talking about a lot of people who are in civil life. There were a lot of civilians that were doing some other things and that were not necessarily willing, you know, just to go and fight someone in those trenches. But that's how it was for the last three years and it's ongoing. So it's not a civil war, it’s really a Russia-Ukraine conflict, and in many ways actually a lot of people think it's probably some kind of a delayed war for independence over Ukraine because we got our independence back in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. So there was no war involved there. But right now Russia is kind of trying to get some pieces of land from us and actually keep us in the tight leash in their sphere of control and we're fighting against that. So it’s some kind of a liberation war. And also like I said it's also about the future for Ukraine and the whole post-Soviet space for that matter because Putin is very afraid of Ukraine being successful in democratic transformation. So in many ways some experts actually call it Ukrainian-Soviet war, meaning that Ukraine is trying to break away from that cycle with both Soviet corruption and authoritarian models of leadership.
Cruise: And I think one of the other tropes that's been used are the vantage points that's been used is which direction will Ukraine go. Will they go West or will they go East? And looking west, do you have the European Union, you have NATO? What is the current situation with those organizations and their relationship with Ukraine?
Dutovyk: Well I believe that right now currently there is only a Westward dimension which is open for us because Putin himself destroyed the Eastern option. For us he kind of played was this idea of Ukraine being close to you to Russia. And in many ways it is, you know, culturally so. There are two countries, two brotherly nations so to speak, the way they see it in Russia. But often they are off though abuse the role of big brother who's been really tough to the smaller brother.
Cruise: Very harsh history.
Dutovyk: Yes, very harsh history and Ukrainians hardly survive that brotherly hugs of a big brother so to speak. But that's how they push the story then. And many Ukrainians believe in that story and they wanted Ukraine to be close to Russia in many ways and maybe be part of Eurasian space that Russia organize, or the Customs Union, this post-Soviet space that Russia was also leading this project. But now that he's kind of destroyed the whole prospect for that because right now it's not just about the political elite or the government of Ukraine, it's about the public which turned decisively anti-Russia because of this recent aggression in Crimea and ongoing aggressions in Donbass. Well so a lot of people who are actually in the pro-Russian camp in Ukraine, they're not anymore. So is that the percentage speaking percentage wise kind of speaking in Ukraine the problem it you say really strongly now in favor of European Union and NATO. But that doesn't mean that only because of that Ukraine would be able to join any of those two organizations anytime soon. Because the European Union this kind of complicated. They had their problems as well was digesting new or newer members. And now of course this struggle with the economic crisis for a while and now with immigration crisis and stuff like that.
Cruise: And then the Brexit and all that.
Dutovyk: So yes are not in the business of considering any time soon Ukraine's application not to mention that Ukraine is still not ready on account of various criteria that we need to meet before we actually apply for membership. With NATO the same thing. You know NATO is expanded but not to include Ukraine. So that's a problem for us because we are not part of that collective security architecture system that is there in NATO. People like myself, we push this idea of Ukraine joining NATO for years and years now, and public has been not necessarily decisive on this. People have been divided. A lot of propaganda has been against NATO, pushed by Russia into Ukraine so that people heard this. A lot of things, kind of stereotypes, bad stereotypes about NATO. Now is changing as well because a lot of people now realize suddenly that left alone vis-a-vis Russia, it's definitely asymmetrical conflict. We're much weaker. So to withstand that pressure we need to go and look for some kind of collective security arrangement. And only NATO right now these days can provide that.
Cruise: So is there some frustration too at the response of NATO or the NATO allies in this situation with Russia? Sanctions have been tried but someone say they're quite weak. Europe and the United States haven't really been able to do all that much.
Dutovyk: There is, Rebecca. There is frustration. The way I put it usually when I talk about that here in the West and here in this country the United States is that Ukraine is kinda fluctuating or has you know kind of moving between the first on the one hand frustration and anger about being left alone vis-a-vis Russia in this conflict, and the other extreme actually being grateful for the assistance we have received because we actually received some assistance and financial assistance, primarily directed to the reforms business. So it's not directed too much of helping Ukrainian army for for instance, even though there was some assistance coming from U.S., but just not little weapons. So that's been a big issue that has been debated in this country even under the previous administration, the Obama administration, should Ukraine receive lethal weapons to defend themselves against the Russian aggression. And a lot of people in the administration thought that they should. But then President Obama actually decided against it, thinking something like along the lines that if we provide arms to Ukrainians that would even create this pretext and the reason for Putin to escalate even more against Ukraine. So we shouldn't we wouldn't actually achieve what we were trying to do while supplying those weapons. So that's that's a problem. There was a line of I think it was previous administration.
Cruise: And the new administration. How are people feeling about that?
Dutovyk: The signal signals that we're getting from the Donald Trump administration are kind of mixed, really, because on the one hand you have a bunch of people in the administration basically stating their commitment to their position on Ukraine crisis, and the Ukraine-Russia conflict being unchanged from previous administrations basically, which is very critical of what Russia does to Ukraine. And the Vice President Pence said that. You know the Defense Secretary General Mattis said that. Your ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that, and other people did as well. And also the press secretary Sean Spicer he mentioned and one of the briefings that President Trump believes that Russia should return Crimea to Ukraine. But then at the same time we know of Mr. Trump's history of making some pro-Russian, pro-Putin statements, and also kind of ambivalent statements on Ukraine including that he would consider recognizing Crimea being part of Ukraine of Russia at some point of time during the campaign. He's been more cautious, now, I would say in restraints since becoming a President in public statements on Ukraine related to Ukraine. But he seems to be still kinda preoccupied and focused on this idea of making relations with Russia better which would be a good idea for both Russia and the United States. And that's in Ukraine because we don't want to be a battleground between the hostile West versus hostile Russia, but at what expense? At what condition? What matters for us is what is what is the agenda there. What is what. What other conditions in place that would facilitate that would make it possible, enable, a dialogue or a normalization of relations between Ukraine, U.S. and Russia. If that would mean that they would withdraw from Crimea and Donbass and that would change their attitude in the region. And there are many other steps like what they're doing in Syria as well so it's not just limited to the post-Soviet space. That's one thing. But if we see this country, United States, actually continuing to pursue this idea of normalizing relations with Russia at the time when Putin is doing what he's doing to Ukraine, that would be a bad thing. I think ultimately for American interests in the region but also very dangerous I think emboldening Putin to do more of adventurist kind of style things towards other smaller countries in the region.
Cruise: Well we will definitely have to keep an eye on the Trump administration's relationship with Russia and how that affects Ukraine and and I would also say that we need to keep paying attention to what's going on in Ukraine in this country as I said we haven't been watching as closely as we should, that there is a conflict going on that people are struggling and dying and displaced and we should.
Dutovyk: Thank you Rebecca for doing this and for giving me the opportunity to address this issue.
Cruise: Wonderful. Well we will definitely keep in touch and thank you for joining us today.
Dutovyk: Good to be here.
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