Round Table | "Ukraine, Russia, and the West: On the Brink of War"

An in-house round table on "Ukraine, Russia, and the West: On the Brink of War" involved several CIUS staff members offering expert knowledge of the region and the problem at hand. They included: Volodymyr Kravchenko (Director), Jars Balan (Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies), David Marples (Stasiuk Program on Contemporary Ukraine, Bohdan Harasymiw (CPRS), and Heather Coleman (Religion and Culture Program).

14 March 2014


13 March 2014—On 28 February 2014 the acting Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchynov, issued a statement to the effect that Russian troops had moved into Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea, taken control of government buildings and infrastructure, and blockaded and laid siege to Ukrainian military installations on the Crimean peninsula. This invasion occurred under the pretext of an illegally formed government in the Crimea that appealed to Russia for help, asking it to protect the Russian and "Russian-speaking" population from "radical nationalists" and an "illegal" government in Kyiv. According to Turchynov, "they are provoking us to [begin a] military conflict," perhaps in order to implement the so-called "Abkhazia scenario" so as to annex the Crimea.

The Russian invasion of the Crimea immediately became the leading item of world news and has resulted in the formation of a rather unified international front against the violation of Ukraine’s
sovereignty by its neighbor. Experts, staff members, and associates of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta with expertise in political studies and knowledge of the region are continuing to analyze the situation, draw preliminary conclusions, and forecast likely outcomes.

On Wednesday, 5 March 2014, the Centre for Political and Regional Studies (Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies) held a round table on "Ukraine, Russia, and the West: On the Brink of War." This well-attended event featured several presenters with expert knowledge of the region and the problem at hand: Volodymyr Kravchenko, director, CIUS; Jars Balan, administrative coordinator, Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre, CIUS; David Marples, director, Stasiuk Program for the Study of Contemporary Ukraine, CIUS; Bohdan Harasymiw, coordinator, Centre for Political and Regional Studies, CIUS; and Heather Coleman, director, Religion and Culture Program, CIUS. Their presentations were followed by questions from the audience, which then evolved into an open and stimulating discussion.

Volodymyr Kravchenko began by noting the institute’s role of providing expert knowledge about Ukraine and the current crisis. CIUS, the leading Ukrainian studies centre in the West, has
established an analytical unit—the Centre for Political and Regional Studies—that spearheads the institute’s analysis of political, economic, social, and other developments in contemporary Ukraine. Covering the current political crisis there, CIUS staff and associates have already given over 150 interviews, written a number of articles, and posted numerous materials on the institute’s Facebook and YouTube pages. They are collaborating with other organizations, such as the Euromaidan Research Forum, on joint projects. Another round table may be held soon.

Heather Coleman and Bohdan Harasymiw briefly summarized the current crisis, which began with the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, refusing to sign an association agreement with
the European Union in November 2013 and has culminated, at this point, with the Russian military invasion of the Crimea.

According to Bohdan Harasymiw, the events in Ukraine that led to the ousting of the former president can be considered a "non-violent revolution" (even though more than a hundred of people died). It was a spontaneous popular movement led by individuals previously unknown on the national political stage (such as Andrii Parubii, the commander of the Euromaidan). Opposition leaders in the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada)—Vitalii Klychko, Arsenii Yatseniuk, and Oleh Tiahnybok—attempted to lead the Euromaidan but were not always successful. The release of Yuliia Tymoshenko from jail and her appearance on the Maidan did not have the expected galvanizing effect, since many associate her with the "old regime" and do not consider her capable of effecting political change. The movement that we now call the Euromaidan has no firm ideological background and has not yet brought about comprehensive revolutionary change in the country. Russia has reacted by claiming that the new government came to power through a coup d’état and that Viktor Yanukovych, despite his "negligible political rating," is still the legitimate president. Vladimir Putin has also asserted that if the events in Ukraine were indeed a revolution, then the Russian government has no agreements with the new Ukrainian state, and any guarantees given to that country under the Budapest Agreement (1994) are moot. That agreement gave Ukraine security assurances in exchange for surrendering its nuclear weapons. Russia also denies that it has any troops in the Crimea and refers to the military there as "freedom fighters."

The discussion of the Russian position was continued by David Marples, who sought to penetrate the thinking of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. According to Marples, that is no easy task.
When international negotiators brokered an agreement between President Yanukovych, the political opposition, and protesters on the Maidan on February 21, the Russian representative did not sign the agreement. Yanukovych then fled the country. In all likelihood, said Marples, Putin had succeeded in convincing Yanukovych to abandon his plans to sign the association agreement with the EU during the latter’s visit to Moscow on 9 November 2013. Putin sees the change of government in Ukraine as a coup d’état orchestrated by the West and carried out by radical Ukrainian nationalists and extremists, who used violence and set their capital city on fire. The overheard conversation between the US ambassador in Kyiv, Geoffrey Pyatt, and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland about choosing a new Ukrainian government, as well as Senator John McCain’s presence on the Maidan next to the radical nationalist Oleh Tiahnybok probably confirmed Putin’s suspicions. Ukraine’s new government, he concluded, would be anti-Russian, with no members from the Party of Regions, the Communist Party, or any Russophile political groups. In short, Putin sees the new government in Kyiv as declaring war on Russia and everything Russian.

Marples stressed that for Putin, Kyiv is the ancestral capital of Rus' and the cradle of "Russian civilization," which includes Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Years ago, Putin called the collapse
of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century." He considers Ukraine a mere geographical expression, not a country. Russia’s objectives in this political crisis are not yet clear, and there is no telling how far Russia is prepared to go in defiance of international criticism and possible sanctions. What is clear though, said Marples, is that Putin’s world will never be the same again. Yuliia Tymoshenko has already called for the complete withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea Fleet from the Crimea, and the West is ready to impose sanctions (as early as 17 March). Internationally, the Russian Federation is increasingly viewed as a predatory state that is trying to recreate an empire of sorts. "As self-obsessed and egotistical as the Russian president is, he might have gone too far this time," concluded Marples.

In the opinion of Jars Balan, Russia declared a state of war against Ukraine, in a sense, during the Orange Revolution of 2004. Putin must have felt humiliated by the real and perceived failures of his policy toward Ukraine. This led him to plan his revenge, employing economic pressure, a propaganda war and, finally, actual military invasion. After Yanukovych was elected president, he turned to authoritarianism and received support from Russia. Yanukovych curbed democracy in Ukraine and appointed overt Russophiles and ethnic Russians to the key ministries. Since his ouster, Russia is still making use of Yanukovych in its open aggression against Ukraine.

According to Balan, Putin has more than the Crimea in his sights. Balan described the role that Ukrainian research, educational, and public organizations in Canada play in informing the Canadian federal government, politicians, and the general public about the state of affairs in Ukraine and the surrounding region. Canadians are thus well informed about developments in Ukraine and are providing invaluable support to the Ukrainian people during this difficult time.