Baylor professor puts Ukrainian situation in Waco perspective

Dr. Sergiy Kudelia
Dr. Sergiy Kudelia

By Jessica Abbey

Dr. Sergiy Kudelia of Ukraine, is an assistant professor in the political science department.Kudelia has done research in political regimes, revolutions, insurgency and counterinsurgency. He also teaches a class on the government and politics of Russia. He shared some of his thoughts on the Ukrainian conflict.

Since November, there have been protests of those who favor becoming a part of the European Union against the government with strong ties to Russia. These protests have culminated into the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych this pastweek. Yanukovych fled to Russia and an interim president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov has stepped up. Russian forces have now entered Crimea, a southern region of Ukraine with a predominately ethnic Russian population. The Ukrainian government views this act as a declaration of war and is seeking help from allies. President Barack Obama pledged his support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and spoke of “costs” for military intervention in Ukraine.Russia also successfully fired a test missile yesterday as tensions are rising between Russia and Ukraine. The Obama administration is working to send $1 billion dollars in aid to Ukraine.

Q: The Obama administration has expressed its concerns about the Russian forces in Ukraine and is working with European allies to respond. What steps could the United States and/or its allies take, and what course of action seems the most likely?

A: The United States and European states have limited options as far as the crisis in Crimea goes. The military option is off the table, because there are no direct security guarantees that were offered to Ukraine over the past 20 years. Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, nor did it officially apply to become a member of NATO. Although there was close cooperation between NATO and Ukraine, there have been no commitments officially made by the Western powers to protect Ukraine in case of invasion. The military option is also off the table because Russia is a nuclear power and any military confrontation between the West and Russia will risk escalating into a full-fledged nuclear war. The only options the U.S. has are economic and political sanctions against Russian leadership. Economic sanctions may include sanctions to freeze assets belonging to Russian corporations, to Russian oligarchs and to potentially Russian political leadership. Any assets that they have in Western banks may be frozen in response to the actions taken by the Russian government. Additional sanctions may include expulsion of Russia from G8. We have already seen a statement from G7 member states who said they are not going to participate in the meeting in Sochi in two months. This is the first step in showing the West is serious about diplomatic sanctions.

The second step, if Russia doesn’t listen, is the freezing of high level diplomatic contacts. The expulsion of Russia from other organizations that it is a member like, for example, the Council of Europe. So these are the main things at this time that are possible.

Q: Do you believe the United States has a right to get involved in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?

A: The Russian invasion of Crimea happened at the moment of greatest weakness of the Ukrainian state. Ukraine is bankrupt economically. It asked the International Monetary Fund for a $15 billion bailout because it is about to default on its loans. The treasury is empty, because of embezzlement of state funds by the previous leadership. In addition to that there are strains within Ukraine, a major internal polarization in Ukraine between the Russian speaking parts of Ukraine and the western favoring parts of Ukraine. In addition to that there are also questions on the legitimacy of the current Ukrainian authority. The interim president has been appointed through a dubious procedure within the parliament and Russia insists that the president who fled to Russia still remains a legitimate president, and there are substantial legal grounds for that claim. Finally, the last thing is the command structure within the military is also not clear because of the considerable reshuffling of Ukrainian military commanders over the last week some of whom were either fired or put to other positions. So there is basically a new command within the Ukrainian military that may not fully control the armed forces. As a result, the Ukrainian authorities may decide, given the inability of Ukrainian forces to fight back, Ukrainian authorities may ask NATO to intervene militarily or to provide a set of troops to put on the ground of Ukrainian territory. It is very unlikely that NATO will decide to participate in pushing Russian troops out of Crimea. The next big question is the extent to which Russia is willing to just limit itself to occupying Crimea or it is willing to move further in other parts of Ukraine and occupy those parts of Ukraine that are Russian speaking and could potentially appeal for Russian protection. For that reason, Ukrainian authorities may try to invite military presence to deter Russians from moving to further parts of Ukraine outside of Crimea. If the Ukrainian authorities decide to do that, then of course it will be up to NATO leadership to see if that is in America’s interests to have military presence in Ukraine.

Q: Looking back at the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine, where do you believe Ukrainian citizens’ stance is? Do you think it’s likely that ethnically Russian areas could separate from Ukraine?

A: Ethnic Russians in Ukraine compose about 20 percent of the entire Ukrainian population. The only region where ethnic Russians predominate is Crimea. The rest of the regions of Ukraine are predominately ethnic Ukrainians, but some of them speak Russian. Because of that, they may have certain cultural affinities to Russia that influence their political preferences. The polls that have been done over the last several months in Ukraine indicated that the only region where the majority favors union with Russia is Crimea. All other regions, even Russian speaking regions within Ukraine, favor maintaining the unity of the Ukrainian state. The only thing that I believe may influence the opinion of some Russian speaking Ukrainians are the actions of the new Ukrainian authorities if they are viewed as threatening to their democratic rights: cultural rights, the rights to have certain kinds of self-rule in their territories, etc. Over the last week a number of government positions were taken by the representatives of the ultra-nationalist political party, and that produced a lot of concerns for the Russian-speaking population particularly in the east about potential threats to their rights in these regions. It is absolute priority for the Ukrainian authorities now to reassure Russian speaking Ukrainians that their freedoms are not going to be under threat in the new system of government. Personally I do not think that the majority of Ukrainians in these areas would support unity with Russia, but there is a vocal minority that has been demonstrating in these regions from the last few days, and that vocal minority has been backed by Russia, and has been supported financially and reassured by the Russian presence in Crimea that this is there time to demand separation from Ukraine. So there is this vocal minority that is still there that may cause problems in the future.

One more thing I would like to add is that the Russian television official media has been presenting this conflict as a conflict between the Western powers, the E.U. and the U.S., and Russia. With the western support when the new authorities came to power, once the new authorities consolidate their power they will be fully separated from Russia. They are playing up the fears of many people in eastern Ukraine, that these regions will somehow be blocked from interaction with the Russians across the border.

Q: Why do you believe Russia is willing to intervene with military forces in Ukraine?

A:There are several explanations for why it’s happening. The first explanation has to do with the worldview of Putin himself. The fact that he believes in a special mission to revive Russia’s greatness as a world power, and that means to capture some of the territories that Russia lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union. The takeover of parts of Ukraine is one of the important steps in the revival of the Russian empire.
The second explanation has to do with the domestic popular support. The majority of Russians according to a poll from November of 2013 view Crimea as 56% of Russian citizens believe that Crimea is part of Russia. It was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 as a result of decision by Soviet authorities, so for most of its history up until 1954 Crimea was a part of Russia. Crimea has been part of Ukraine for only the past 50 to 60 years. That’s why many Russians believe it is their right to reclaim Crimea as Russian territory. Putin may gain additional support because of that action.

The third set of reasons has to do with strategic calculations and concerns that Putin may have. Russia has a fleet that is stationed in Crimea in Sevastopol. That fleet was supposed to have been withdrawn by 2017. The Russian navy is stationed in Sevastopol. The strategic significance of this is that this is the only Russian port in warm waters. The rest of the ports are frozen during the winter, so they can’t use them. In addition to that Sevastopol has major symbolic significance for Russia because that was the site of numerous battles of the Russian army and the Western world. So the initial agreement was to have the fleet stationed in Sevastopol until 2017. That agreement was extended under the previous president, who fled to Russia. The agreement was extended to 2042. The new government that came to power in Ukraine didn’t recognize the extension of the agreement, and wanted to see the withdrawal of Russian navy from Ukrainian territory by 2017. So the strategic concern that Putin may have is if he allowed to Ukraine to maintain its presence in Crimea then Russia will have lost military presence forever in Crimea after 2017. The second concern that he also had was the potential of the new authorities to re-launch their negotiations with NATO, on the possibility of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO in the future. The ousted president adopted a law that proclaimed Ukraine’s neutrality and commanded them not to enter into any military alliances. Putin is concerned that new authorities will scrap that law and re-launch talks about Ukraine’s membership in NATO, which will be viewed as a serious security threat to Russia. By occupying Crimea, Russia will create a permanent territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia that will prevent NATO from accepting Ukraine as a member because based on the rules of NATO no new member can have territorial disputes with their neighbors, especially if it’s a nuclear power neighbor. So these are three main considerations that may be in play.

Q: Do you believe negotiations with Russia will be able to change the course of events in Ukraine?

A: I think Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has been done after careful considerations. It was not spontaneous. It has preparation. One of the strong cards Russia has right now is the local leadership of Crimea is favoring close ties and reunification with Russia, and the current leadership of Crimea that has been elected only last week is planning to hold a referendum on the independence of Crimea. If that referendum takes place and the majority of Crimeans would vote for independence, then it would be very hard for the West to persuade Russia why it should not take hold of Crimea, or even recognize the independence of Crimea. So I don’t think negotiations at this point in time on status of Crimea would be successful. What the West should really focus on is preventing Russia from moving into other parts of Ukraine. They should make it clear that any further move of Russia into Ukraine will lead to major irreversible change in the bilateral relationship between Russia and Western countries.

Q: If Russia refuses to remove its forces, what are some likely consequences?

A: The main remaining question is the extent to which Ukraine is willing to resist Russian attempts to consolidate Crimea. Ukraine still has military bases there. Russia issued an ultimatum to surrender these military bases. If the Ukrainian forces try to resist, we are likely to see a military confrontation that will lead to a major war between Russia and Ukraine. If the Ukrainian authorities decide to surrender and withdrawal these troops, then full-fledged war will be avoided. But Russian troops will face the threat of what could be start of insurgency campaign by many locals who do not wish Russia to occupy Ukraine. Who are these locals? Partially these may be ethnic Ukrainians; there are about 20 to 25 percent of ethnic Ukrainians who live in Crimea who may organize guerrilla groups. In addition to that there is an influential ethnic minority of Ukrainian Tatars residing in Crimea who has traditionally favored closer ties with Ukraine. The reason is they did that was because Moscow was responsible for They came back only after Ukraine became independent allowed them returned to their original land in Crimea. These are two new serious security risks that Russia will face in case they refuse to withdraw their troops from Crimea and will continue increasing their military presence in Crimea.

Q: What are the most important things a Baylor student should understand about this issue? How could this affect us in the United States?

A: I was having lunch in Memorial, and I overheard some students discussing the possibility of war with Russia because of conflict with Crimea and whether or not they would be willing to participate. I think it’s important for Baylor students to know that this conflict is driven by a very delicate ethnic composition of the Ukrainian state and the inability of the Ukrainian political elites to address and resolve issues in that have been dividing Ukrainian society for a long time. The only way for Ukraine to maintain its integrity as a state would be, not through the military intervention of other states, but through the search for consensus between different ethnic and cultural groups who live in Ukraine and between the leaders of different parts of Ukraine. Any additional military intervention will only lead to further decomposition of Ukrainian state. In other words, you don’t want to make things worse with other states chipping in. It’s important for them to understand, given what I have heard today in Memorial Hall, that this conflict doesn’t have a military solution.