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Clashes in Ukraine create tension for U.S. and Russia

February 22, 2014 at 5:30 PM EDT
Ongoing violence in Ukraine over the past few weeks has added further stress to relations between the United States and Russia. What are the issues dividing the two countries? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Russian Studies Professor Stephen Cohen about Russia’s stake in Ukrainian unrest.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The developments in the last few weeks in Ukraine have further strained the already fraught relations between the United States and Russia. For more about that and other issues dividing the two countries we’re joined now by Stephen Cohen, he’s the Professor of Russian Studies at New York University and Princeton. He’s also the author of the book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. So of course Ukraine is right next door to Russia. Russia has major interests here. How is Putin likely to react?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, let’s look at what might happen. Let’s take the most extreme scenario. The president, democratically elected although he’s not a nice man, has fled Kiev, Ukraine to Kharkov in the East near Russia. Presumably he’s going to claim he’s the legitimate president of Ukraine and form a government in Kharkov. Meanwhile protesters, the mob, whatever you want to call it, have taken over the presidential palace and legislature in Kiev and they’re going to form a government. So we are probably gonna have, if not in law in fact, two governments in Ukraine. That’s very dramatic in the center of Europe. One will be affiliated with Russia, if this happens, the other with the European Union. And if we think about it in the worst scenario, that will be a new Cold War to divide in Europe. This time, not in far away Berlin, but right on Russia’s borders and that isn’t good.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there a possibility that Russia annexes back that section of Ukraine that likes it?

STEPHEN COHEN: Today it’s eight hours later, nine hours later there. The legislator of Kharkov, which calls itself the southeastern Parliament of Ukraine — that’s the area where it’s mainly Russian speaking and adheres to Russia — passed resolutions saying they don’t recognize the authority of the government in Kiev, which means they’re saying they’re sovereign and independent. So in effect, they’re now allied with Russia. Russia’s red line, if you want to ask me about whether Russia would intervene military, it’s red line are the two Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine: Crimea and Sevastopol. Not only because those are ethnic Russians, but that’s where the Russian naval bases are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Okay so President of the United States and President Putin have a conference call yesterday. What are the U.S. interests in all this?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, you’ve asked me two questions. What does Washington think its interests are? Because Washington has spun a narrative that I think hasn’t been correct and has worsened the problem. And what I think Washington’s interests ought, and Washington’s interests ought to be a stable and united Ukraine, at peace with itself and not trapped in an either or proposition between Russia and Europe. There’s no reason why Ukraine must choose. Ukraine’s an economic basket case. As Putin himself actually said, let both sides, Russia and Europe, help Ukraine. But things may be out of control. This may be something of a revolutionary situation. Nothing written on paper holds to that evening.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And finally turning to something else that’s sort of in the news about Russia. Considering that the Olympics are ending now and there are concerns that Putin will crack down harder on his dissidents because the media spotlight will be away. This week we saw that band, Pussy Riot, actually stage their own protests in Sochi and they were beaten horribly. And they were writing in op eds in the New York Times saying next week it’s gonna get worse.

STEPHEN COHEN: Look, Putin isn’t gonna crack down inside Russia because the Olympics are over. One of the bad things that’s happened in Ukraine is a democratically elected government has been overthrown and forces sponsored by the west are coming to power. Putin wants to know, is that a paradigm for Russia? Is the west going to try the same thing in Russia? Now you and I might say ‘that’s paranoid,’ but as somebody once said ‘even paranoids have enemies’ and this is widely believed in Russia. And so he might now crack down because he fears the Kiev scenario might be attempted in Russia. I don’t think we would dare do that, but Russians think based on what they see, and they’ve seen something fairly unnerving.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Stephen Cohen, thanks so much.

STEPHEN COHEN: My pleasure.