Foreign Affairs 101:
If it’s possible to condense the incomprehensibly complex Russia/Ukraine conflict into one coherent hour, Matthew Rojansky can do it. Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on the region, proved that in a recent presentation at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. A listener who blinked could miss a paragraph, but Rojansky’s fast-paced illustrated lecture had most of his audience too engaged to blink. What follows is an abbreviated summary of the presentation.
For openers, Rojansky explained that Ukraine, under now-deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych, was “a society absolutely primed for revolt. A few years ago,” Rojansky said, “I moved to Kiev with my family, (finding) Yanukovych one of the most corrupt politicians in history – and that’s saying something.” Illustrating his point, Rojansky showed slides taken during his time in Kiev including views of some of Yanukovych’s perks: a heli-pad; a palace with gold, jewel-encrusted design, 3-lane bowling alley, billiard room, private floating pirate-themed restaurant reported to have cost a few billion dollars – a rather definitive picture of excess. Rojansky also mentioned the stuffed lion guarding a corridor leading to the nail salon and spa, and a collection of exotic cars and animals. It was not just personal excess, he said, “there was government corruption on a grand scale.”
By the fall of 2013, Ukranian citizens were tiring of this. A peaceful protest known as the Euromaidan began in the square Rojansky and his family could see from their apartment window. “It was surreal.” Public sentiment favored closer connections to Europe, Rojansky said, but Yanukovych instead signed an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Thus began the increasing protests fueled largely by social media, with help for the needs of Euromaidan solicited via constant Facebook postings.
Initially, Rojansky explained, the movement was not political. But also thanks to social media – Twitter users began receiving messages letting them know they were registered as protesters – things quickly changed. And on January 16, 2014, the dictatorship laws were passed: No protests, no groups, no gatherings. The movement against abstract corruption became ‘Yanukovych Must Go.’ Things came to a crisis when someone gave the order to fire and all-out shooting began. Despite the European Union intervening to broker a deal in late February, Yanukovych escaped – with boxcars of treasure – though leaving behind the exotic animals still being cared for on his former palatial estate outside Kiev.
Soon came the time of “the little green men” in Crimea, a significant chunk of Ukraine on the Black Sea. Rojanksy explained that there have always been Russians in Crimea; the little green men wore Russian military garb minus the insignia, carried Russian weaponry, but Putin at the time denied they were sent by Russia.
By May of 2014, Rojansky said, regions of Ukraine that are heavily Russian-speaking began to hold referenda to break away – not to become independent, but to become part of Russia. Things accelerated significantly with the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane in July, 2014, and the ground war began. “This was not World War II,” Rojanksy explained, but guerilla warfare with terror tactics, firing on civilian buildings, the destruction of the once-beautiful Donetsk airport. “This is insane stuff.”
As to what Mr. Putin wants out of all this? Rojansky listed three main points;
1 – Domestic politics are life-or-death. If the idea that when regular people take to the streets life gets better catches on, Russians might say “What about us?”
2 – Putin has a major image issue. He’s the tsar. He is never wrong. There’s God, and then there’s the Tsar.
3 – Geopolitics are important. If Russia and Crimea get together, Putin’s bargaining power is greater.
Rojanksky characterizes Ukraine as being between a rock and a Russian hard place. The hard place is boosted by the fact that half the people in Ukraine speak Russian, and many more watch Russian TV with its decidedly nationalist fervor.
For now, Rojansky says the wise course is “Don’t show up giving out cookies. Get observers on the ground as fast as possible, and eyes on the ground on the borders. Watch to see if sanctions are working.
And in the very long term: “Ukraine matters. We have to help Ukraine defeat corruption. Things we can do include letting Ukrainians come here, and knowing about the region.” In the end:
“There are no easy answers.”
Disclaimer: This writer knows as little about Russia and Ukraine as a few long-ago college courses and one unforgettable trip from Moscow to St. Petersberg might suggest. But listening to Matthew Rojansky’s take on the current situation is enough to convince one to pay attention.