What will happen next in Ukraine? Several Bowdoin College students, curious about the unfolding political situation in the former Soviet Union, recently asked Laura Henry, an expert on Russian civil society and social movements, to lead a discussion at Burnett House on the topic.
Henry, Bowdoin’s John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Associate Professor of Government, opened the evening talk by describing the history behind the conflict. Ukraine has traditionally been culturally and geographically divided, split between ethnic Ukrainians in the west and ethnic Russians in the east. Many western Ukrainians desire closer ties with the European Union. Over the last few years this has manifested in a proposed deal called the Eastern Partnership, which, had it been ratified, would have supported more tourism, trade agreements and more.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin does not back the Eastern Partnership, which he sees as a threat to Russia, Ukraine’s longtime ally. He pressured Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych not to sign the agreement, and in November 2013 Yanukovych complied.
This betrayal enraged pro-western, nationalistic Ukrainians, who took to the streets, demanding that the government step down. Violence quickly ensued, and on February 21 Yanukovych fled over the border into Russia. The Ukrainian Parliament, the Rada, quickly voted to instate a new acting president, and Yanukovych, from his refuge in Russia, asserted that an illegal coup had taken place. He wrote to Putin (at Putin’s behest, according to some) urging Russia to intervene and invade Crimea, where, ironically, there was little violence and few protests occurring.
So what is the world to think of all this? Henry said she believes that international efforts will be slow to mobilize: the E.U. requires the agreement of 28 members before joint action can be taken. And if the United States plays any role, it will be “in concert with the Europeans” on sanctions. Putin has already warned against sanctions by threatening E.U. property as well as the strength of the U.S. dollar, which Russia can influence through its national bank. Henry believes that economic consequences are more likely to slow Putin down than threats of force.
Still, other nations face a serious dilemma in waiting to act. International norms have been violated and many countries feel a responsibility to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, but are wary of instigating any more violence.
If Putin is a rational actor, said Henry, the conflict is likely to freeze at Crimea and civil war will be avoided. “But I don’t know if he’s a rational actor anymore!” she quipped. “It’s very dangerous to predict things about Russia. You’re just inviting yourself to be proven wrong,” she said with a smile.