Foreign Affairs Focus: Alexander Motyl on the Ukraine Crisis

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Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, sits down with Alexander Motyl, an expert on Ukraine who teaches political science at Rutgers University–Newark. "Putin has effectively lost Ukraine," says Motyl. "For the first time in the 25 or so years of Ukraine's independence, I'd say that virtually...the entire Ukrainian population, minus a bit of the Donbas, but even there wavering...is united against Putin, is united against Russia, and is united for Ukraine. That's never been the case. And Ukraine has Putin to thank for that."

Read Motyl's latest article in Foreign Affairs here. A transcript is available below:

ROSE: Hi there. I'm Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, and I have the distinct privilege and pleasure to talk to day with Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers and one of the country's foremost experts on Ukraine and Eastern Europe more generally.

Alex, we had you write for us last fall about Ukraine's forthcoming accession agreement with the European Union that it was due to sign. And you wrote a piece and said, whether it signs or not, this is a turning point in Ukrainian history, because they can't just keep muddling on, and either Yanukovych will bring Ukraine toward Europe in the future or he'll back away from it, in which case there will be an absolute outcry and things will never be the same. 

You called that correctly. And, of course, he backed away and things did go into a series of crises. Yanukovych ultimately fell. And we're still seeing the ramifications of that. 

Just recently, western Ukraine, or the actual government of Ukraine minus Crimea, did sign the accession agreement with the EU that Ukraine was about to sign last fall. So does this mean the crisis is over and that Ukraine, minus Crimea, is actually now firmly anchored in the West? 

MOTYL: This means that the crisis may be over and that Ukraine is on the way to being firmly anchored in the West. I wouldn't be quite as categorical. I'd like to be that categorical, but that's not quite the case at the moment. There is still a war going on in parts of the Donbas, and the government still has to consolidate, but the trend over the last two, two-and-a-half months is in the direction of the West, is in the direction of democracy, is in the direction of state-building, which leads me to the guardedly optimistic conclusion that if this continues -- and I think it will -- Ukraine will be firmly anchored in the West, as you put it. 

ROSE: But many have argued that this is actually Putin who has been the victor and has surged and has been bold and has seized Crimea, destabilized the eastern parts of Ukraine, so you don't see this -- the whole thing as a win for Putin?

MOTYL: I see this as a loss for Putin. As a matter of fact, I happen to belong to that probably small number of individuals who believe that Putin isn't that good a statesman. Just consider what he had in Ukraine back in September, October, November, fall of last year. Ukraine was in his pocket. Yanukovych was in his pocket. Even if Ukraine had signed the association agreement, Yanukovych would probably have survived. He would have had to expand his base. He wouldn't have been the same Yanukovych, but Ukraine would have been very firmly ensconced within Russia's sphere of influence.

Over the last six, seven or so months, Putin has effectively lost Ukraine. It's not just that Ukraine has signed the association agreement. It's much worse than that, because for the first time in the 25 or so years of Ukraine's independence, I'd say that virtually the entire Ukrainian elite -- east, west, north, south, center -- virtually the entire Ukrainian population, minus a bit of the Donbas, but even there wavering -- is united against Putin, is united against Russia, and is united for Ukraine. That's never been the case. And Ukraine has Putin to thank for that. 

ROSE: So if you look at Georgia and if you look at Crimea and if you look at the Eurasian Union, there are some people who interpret this as Putin trying to recreate the former Soviet empire or some kind of Russian grandiose empire and being somewhat successful. You don't see it that way?

MOTYL: Well, he's certainly trying to do that. I'm not sure he's being very successful, is my point. I think what Putin is trying to do is similar to what other countries -- other leaders in other post-imperial circumstances have tried to do. They first accumulate power, establish authoritarian states, highly authoritarian states, crush democracy, crush opposition movements and the rest, and then they try to re-establish some of the former imperial glory. 

He's tried to do that. Now he's sort of succeeded a bit with -- vis-a-vis Georgia, but, of course, at the same time, Georgia, the Georgia that's survived, is now unconditionally opposed to any kind of Russian cooperation and is essentially lost to Putin.

He's more or less successful in Transnistria, but by the same token has succeeded in scaring Moldova away from Russia, as well. And in a way, what he's done with Crimea and parts of the Donbas is very similar to the pattern that he established in Georgia and Moldova.

He's persuaded Ukrainians who until now were always wavering. As you may recall, most Ukrainian presidents pursued what they called a dual-vector policy of being on friendly terms with the West and on the East. He's essentially persuaded everyone that there's only one choice, it's the Western choice. There is no alternative, because the alternative, closer relations with Russia, means that Russia will occupy your territory. And that's just a nonstarter.

ROSE: How has -- what do you think of the U.S. policy during this past year and Europe's policy and the West's policy more generally?

MOTYL: Well, considering that until about November of last year, almost the entire West suffered from what was known as Ukraine fatigue, wasn't interested in Ukraine, really wasn't paying too much attention what was going on with Ukraine, was pretty much persuaded that something in the nature of a new relationship with Russia was in the works. 

But when you consider all of that -- and, of course, there are variations, obviously. But when you consider all of that, then there's been an enormous learning curve over the last six, seven months. Most Ukrainians think it's too little, too late. They're still very angry at the Europeans for dilly-dallying and still looking for compromises with Putin. They're somewhat less angry with the Obama administration; again, it depends.

But generally speaking -- and, again, my own viewpoint is that considering where the West was and considering how far it's come, the transformation has been enormous and it's been positive. The West has come to understand that Russia's behavior vis-a-vis Crimea is simply a violation of all international norms, has come to understand that this kind of behavior -- and, of course, then the subsequent behavior of supporting the aggression in eastern Donbas is simply unacceptable by any standards. 

Now, the response to that is perhaps adequate or not. One can debate that. Certainly, the West has condemned the aggression, certainly condemned Putin's support of the militants and the terrorists within Donbas. The question is, could the West be doing more? My answer is, yes, probably. It could do more without necessarily harming its own economic interests. It could certainly be more forthcoming in terms of the kind of assistance it provides to the Ukrainian military.

That doesn't mean providing SAMs, rockets, and things of that sort. The military, having been neglected for three, four years by Yanukovych, needs things like protective vests, night goggles, communications equipment, medical supplies of one kind of other. These are things that are relatively inexpensive and would make a big difference in terms of saving lives, if nothing else.

ROSE: What do you -- what do you say about the already that, in fact, the West provoked all this by pushing NATO expansion right up to Russia's borders and that we could have avoided the entire thing by not actually having led Ukraine to expect that it could join the West so easily?

MOTYL: I have two answers to that. One is, what the West should have done was either to expand further and incorporate Ukraine or develop some kind of policy vis-a-vis Ukraine. That is to say, in stopping at Ukraine's western borders, in effect, the West created a geopolitically unsustainable condition for Ukraine, where it was caught between the West, which is where it wanted to go, but which was somehow indifferent to Ukraine, and Russia, where the Ukraine didn't want to go, but which was very enthusiastic about incorporating Ukraine. So the West created a geopolitical dilemma for Ukraine, and we are in a way seeing the consequences of that.

But the real problem, of course, isn't the West. It's Russia. And I for a second do not believe the Russian assertions that NATO expansion is a threat to Russian interests. If they had any idea -- and they must have some idea of what's going on within NATO -- they will know that until the recent invasion of Crimea, NATO was an institution that was in crisis.

ROSE: So if they don't -- you think they say that NATO expansion is a threat to their interests, but they don't really believe it?

MOTYL: I don't believe that for a second. I do not believe that for a second. Likewise, I don't believe for a second that they believe that Ukraine would become a member of NATO. The process by means of which countries become members of NATO is fairly extensive. It's long-drawn. 

ROSE: So they just say that kind of thing to get the West to back off and... 

MOTYL: That's my belief. You know, go to NATO. I mean, they must have spies in NATO. I mean, these guys presumably do their work, and they know that NATO -- the very last thing that NATO members want is Ukraine in NATO, because that would mean putting Article 5 on the line. And as it is, most NATO members are very skittish, because they're imagining scenarios of a Russian attack on Estonia. They're not sure what they would do in those circumstances, and they're absolutely uncertain of how they would respond to a potential Russian attack on a NATO Ukraine. 

ROSE: One last question. In the sort of beware of what you wish for, you just might get it category, so Ukraine has looked at Poland. There are a lot of those comparisons recently, seeing what Poland has managed to accomplish in the last couple of decades, tripling its per capita GDP and so forth, reforming, joining the West fully, and the Ukrainians saying, "We want some of that." Is it, however, plausible that there is the political will and capacity inside Ukraine and the leadership to actually make the kind of structural reforms and transformation that is necessary for the full benefits of inclusive incorporation into the West really to take hold?

MOTYL: That's been the question for the last 25 years, because every single president, every single government have said, yes, we want to reform, yes, we want to join the West. No, they haven't done anything or done an inadequate amount of things.

I think the circumstances today are completely different. First of all, the prime minister and the president actually are pro-Western. We know that. They're not just pulling our legs. We know that.

But more importantly, the structural conditions within which this government has to act have changed fundamentally. They're 180 degrees different from what they had been in the last 25 years. 

So for starters, for the first time in 25 years, Ukraine has the support -- more or less unconditional, even if largely diplomatic, political, and rhetorical, and to some degree economic -- of the West. Never the case in the past. 

I mean, there have been moments where the United States has been close to Ukraine. There have been moments when the European Union, but now you have the EU, you have the United States, the IMF, you have NATO, you have other institutions, like the OSCE, that are supporting Ukraine, and at the same time that are pressuring Ukraine.

Secondly, you have a mobilized population. What the Maidan, the revolution in Kiev, did was to galvanize this enormous energy, very different from what had happened during the Orange Revolution, which lasted three weeks and then pretty much petered out.

The war with Russia has for the first time in Ukraine's history, independent Ukraine's history, created a genuine sense of virtually cross-national patriotism. I've never seen anything like this. I was just there a week ago, speak to people from the east, west, north, south, Russian speakers, Ukrainian speakers, ethnic Russians, ethnic Jews, ethnic Ukrainians, they're all onboard. They want this country to work. They want it to be in the West. They want it to be democratic. They want it to be independent.

And last but not least, the key factor I suspect, Mr. Putin, in initiating this aggression, he's created an enemy. So far, if you look at polls over the last 25 years, Ukrainians have always been at best ambivalent about Russia. Some haven't liked it, but for virtually 25 years, they've been at best ambivalent and -- excuse me, at most -- in effect, what they've actually been, they've been very pro-Russian. There have been public opinion surveys showing that 90 percent of Ukrainians have had a positive attitude towards Russia and Russians over the last 25 years. Regardless of what's happened, they loved Russia.

That has fundamentally changed. So people understand that there is an enemy. This enemy could potentially destroy them. There is a genuine fear of Mr. Putin. There is a genuine fear of the Kremlin. There is a genuine fear of Russia.

You add those things together and you have a circumstance or you have circumstances where a country has to act in a pro-Western fashion, because that's the only way it can survive, it has to act in that fashion between the West was pushing it, and it has to act in that fashion because the population wants it to. So I think the bet -- if I were a betting man, I'd bet a lot. 

ROSE: Alexander Motyl, surprisingly optimistic take on the entire Ukraine crisis. We'll come back and talk to you as it all plays out to see how things work out. Thank you very much.

MOTYL: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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