Ukraine Crisis Could Escalate Without U.S. Support for Dialogue

Posted May 14, 2014

MP3 Interview with Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus in Russian Studies and Politics at New York University and Princeton, conducted by Scott Harris


In the week before an unofficial sovereignty referendum, violence escalated in eastern and southern Ukraine, claiming the lives of more than 60 pro-Russian nationalists. They were killed when buildings the separatists occupied in Odessa and Mariupol were set on fire by pro-Kiev activists – many of them reportedly neo-Nazi paramilitaries – organized under the interim Ukraine government’s “National Guard.” Dozens of Ukrainians have been killed on both sides since Ukrainian forces have launched armed assaults to reassert control over several restive eastern cities.

Organizers of the referendum held in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk on May 10 say that about 90 percent of voters who cast ballots supported sovereignty for the mostly Russian-speaking regions. Kiev, the European Union and the U.S. maintain that the vote was both a sham and illegal. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently distanced himself from the separatists, expressing little interest in absorbing eastern Ukraine’s provinces into the Russian state, as he called for a political solution.

In advance of the scheduled May 25 presidential election in Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is attempting to initiate negotiations between the government in Kiev and pro-Russian separatists to address the issues of regional autonomy, constitutional reform and the status of the Russian language. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus in Russian Studies and Politics at New York University and Princeton. Here, he underscores the danger of the Ukraine conflict and the need for the Obama administration to actively support talks leading to a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

STEPHEN F. COHEN: We have, in Kiev, a government that the United States supports without reservation — this is the government that has sent tanks and armored personnel carriers to towns in eastern Ukraine and opened fire inside the cities. When you take tanks into cities. you’re bound to kill innocent people, and so far as we know, the government in Washington has not told the government in Kiev not to do that. The Russians view that government in Kiev as an illegitimate government, because it was not elected. Your listeners will remember it came to power on Feb. 21, I think it was, when the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich — who was not a good guy, but he was the constitutionally elected president of that country, and all the observers said that election had been free and fair — that he was forced to flee by what had become an armed mob in the streets. And this government, which is a kind of rump parliament government, came to power; the Russians say it has no legality. And they are correct. It has no standing in Ukrainian constitutional law, international law or any law, but we’ve said it’s a virtuous government. The Russians say it’s illegitimate.

Meanwhile, you have people in eastern and southern Ukraine — not only, but mainly — saying that not only is that government in Kiev not legitimate, but it doesn’t represent our political, cultural, ethnic or economic interests. And therefore, we want ... and here we’re not sure what people want. And that’s where we’re at today.

Almost everyone in eastern Ukraine, everyone, let’s say 75 – 80 percent, want more home rule, more autonomy. It would appear from respectable polls, including the Pew polling organization, that the big majority, about 75, maybe 80 percent want to stay in Ukraine. They don’t want to become territorially part of Russia, but they want more autonomy.

That’s negotiable; I think it’s negotiable. And the mechanism to negotiate was proposed last week by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. And Putin said he agreed with that. She called it a “roundtable” of aggrieved parties in Ukraine.

The United States government is absolutely silent. So, we’re saying two things: the Russians are guilty of destabilizing Ukraine. That’s untrue — the Ukraine was destabilized back in November, when the European Union insisted that Ukraine choose between Russia and the West. Impossible, impossible! I mean, they’re so intimately involved, conjugally even, there are so many millions of intermarriages. And the United States says, “Russia won’t negotiate.” But Russia says it’s ready to negotiate: We accept the Merkel plan.

But Washington is silent. And that’s where things stand. When you get this kind of situation, the tail begins to wag the dog; the dog is war. Anything can happen. I think it’s the worst crisis since the Cuban missile crisis, the east-west one. And I actually think that American policy—and this is where I get denounced in this country—is not exclusively to blame, but is largely to blame. But if you want to be diplomatic, let’s say we are equally to blame. But we aren’t doing anything. There’s no diplomacy coming out of Washington. We just say, we’re going to put sanctions on you. That’s not diplomacy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Cohen, how much credence do you give, the possibility of a full-blown civil war breaking out in Ukraine over the next several months, and how does that relate to action that the Obama administration could take in the intervening days here?

STEPHEN F. COHEN: We don’t have very much time, so let me be a little didactic. If you dropped the expression “full-blown civil war,” you could say that there is a “partially-blown” civil war already under way in Ukraine, because the government is attacking other Ukrainians. And the other Ukrainians are beginning to fight back. So that would be civil war.

How much would it take, to make it full-blown? Not much, because it’s spreading. What should the Obama administration do? It should not do what it’s doing. But, here’s the problem. Of the 535 members of Congress, including senators and representatives, only one has spoken out against this policy — I think his name is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, I may mispronounce it, from California, who grilled a State Department official at Congress the other day, about all this. And here’s where we’re left, all across the political spectrum, from the so-called “progressives” at MSNBC, to the right-wing at Fox, from the Republican party to the Democratic Party, to our 535 elected representatives, except one, everybody is on-board publicly with this policy of the Obama administration, which is reckless and dangerous. And wrongheaded. I don’t remember in my lifetime there ever being a situation in America where war was on the horizon and there was no debate inside the beltway, in the mainstream press, or in Congress.

No debate at all! That’s not democracy. That’s a failure of American democracy. Whether I’m right or wrong, everybody should agree we ought to have a debate about this.

Find links to Cohen’s recent articles in The Nation magazine by visiting the bio page for Stephen F. Cohen at The Nation.

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