International Relations Scholar Robert English

The director of USC’s School of International Relations and former Defense Department policy analyst assesses the latest developments of the Ukraine crisis.

Robert English is an award-winning international relations scholar who specializes in the history and politics of contemporary East Europe and Russia. He's currently an associate professor at the University of Southern California and director of its School of International Relations. English formerly worked as a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Committee for National Security and taught at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Relations. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton and has received fellowships from, among others, the U.S. Fund for Peace, the International Research & Exchanges Board and the Ford Foundation.


Tavis: The United States and the European Union continue economic sanctions against Russia as Russian forces stay persistent in their efforts to eliminate Ukraine as an independent state. Last week, the U.S. as you know, delivered 10 armored Humvees to Ukraine as part of its $75 million commitment of nonlethal aid.

Back with us now to talk about the latest developments is Robert English, associate professor and director of USC’s School of International Relations. Professor English, good to see you again.

Robert English: Thank you.

Tavis: I was saying to you before we walked on the set here that, in some ways, it seems like this situation has gone from bad to worse since I saw you just a few weeks ago.

English: You know, back then there was more killing, more fighting going on, but I still had some more optimism. Right now we have a cease fire and very little wide scale killing and fighting, but I am more pessimistic because of what’s happening behind the scenes.

Tavis: More pessimistic why?

English: Because this cease fire opportunity, if it goes by, if it’s not capitalized on, will mean widespread fighting, more violence, and both sides are not acting in good faith. Neither side is fulfilling the terms of the cease fire in the fashion that means they’re really trying for a long-term compromise settlement.

Tavis: The justification, for lack of a better word, the rationale for either side not honoring its agreement one side at a time is what?

English: Well, neither side is open about its rationale. Neither side is admitting to failure to fulfill the terms, but let’s take the Ukrainian side. One month, 30 days after the cease fire was signed, that was February 12, the Ukrainian side was supposed to implement legislation to begin granting some kind of autonomy, some kind of local self-rule for these ethnic Russian regions in the east, the regions that are in rebellion. Not only have they not done so, but in a sense, they’ve gone backwards.

They’ve passed legislation that the Russian side calls a poison pill, right? It requires essentially surrender, laying down all arms, arrest of the separatist leaders and the introduction of Ukrainian forces to conduct new elections before they will consider the provisions of self-rule. This is simply impossible to fulfill.

So the Russian side, you know, with some justice here says, wait a minute, you’re violating a key provision. As for the Russian separatist side, you already pointed out the biggest problem, which is the continued supply of weapons and material in support of those separatist brigades, those groups.

Tavis: So these sanctions I referenced earlier that have been imposed and the EU has imposed just not working?

English: Not as forcefully as some in the U.S. would like. There are plenty of people on the western side, especially in Washington, who had hoped this would precipitate a real crisis for Putin and maybe even a social movement protest, so much economic pain that he would be at least forced back and maybe pushed from power.

It hasn’t happened. Russia has weathered the worst of its currency crisis. You know, the ruble has rebounded in value. Oil prices have begun to creep back up.

Long-term pain, sure. And a long-term systemic crisis for the Russian economy, of course. But nothing that’s going to force Putin to relent in the near term. He remains wildly popular.

Tavis: What do you make of these Humvees that we delivered last week, not the Humvees per se, but our $75 million commitment to nonlethal aid? How do you read that?

English: On the one hand, it’s understandable trying to help the Ukrainian side better defend itself. But from Moscow’s point of view, this is a serious escalation, a militarization of the conflict. Come on, nonlethal aid? Drones? Radars for mortars and all those?

There’s no distinction between offensive and defensive lethal or nonlethal. We are helping arm the Ukrainian side and some of our NATO allies even more so. So understandably, Putin’s side is doing the same. We’re both ratcheting up the military confrontation instead of trying, you know, sincerely for compromise, and that’s a tragedy.

As we discussed before, the central provision was will Kiev, will the Ukrainian government, countenance any kind of autonomy, quasi-federal solution for the Russian speakers in the east?

And it baffles, you know, objective outsiders why they will not. At least call Putin’s bluff, if you will. At least make motions toward fulfilling that agreement. After all, you signed a peace accord that said you would.

Call Putin’s bluff if that’s what you think it is and, if they don’t reciprocate, okay. Then go back to the military option which is, of course, horrible. But we haven’t. The western side hasn’t even tried.

Tavis: I’m not sure–and you’ll tell me–I’m not sure if it was cynicism or skepticism that I heard in your response to this notion of nonlethal aid that the U.S. is providing to Ukraine. But however you see that, share that with me, number one.

But as you do that and offer your analysis, how then would the U.S.–whatever you think of it–how would the U.S. then support Ukraine if not with nonlethal aid?

English: Well, on the lethal-nonlethal euphemism, we don’t need to waste much time on that. We both know that a defensive weapon can be used offensively, right?

Tavis: Okay.

English: We know that a drone can be used to assess the other side’s forces…

Tavis: So that terminology is a joke.

English: Or for helping with targeting. There’s just no way to distinguish.

Tavis: Okay.

English: As for alternatives for Ukraine, Ukraine is in a deep, deep economic crisis and it baffles the mind that we’ve seen both sides, Moscow and Washington, focused on what will happen on the front lines of battle.

Even as we have this momentary respite in a cease fire, instead of the explosion that’s going to happen on the economic and social side as Ukraine goes over the cliff, this is an economy in grievous state of collapse.

Tavis: So instead of sending…

English: $15 million, $20 million, $40 million aid package, the Ukrainians won’t see most of that because they won’t be able to fulfill many of the conditions. This is a country in deep poverty, deeply marred in corruption and worse economically in every respect than Russia. We need to stop the violence and focus on a real economic solution for the people of Ukraine, the real victims.

Tavis: Do I take that to mean then that you think that the $75 million commitment, however one describes it, nonlethal or whatever, money misplaced, badly spent? Could have been spent better someplace else?

English: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s a cheap option. $75 million buys a lot of, you know, killing and dying, but we need to talk about billions for the Ukrainian economy and the necessary reforms.

But the Ukrainian government has to be willing to halt the violence, create a space of calm and then truly go about implementing these reforms which are going to be really tough.

You saw the news about one of these oligarchs who had this sort of back door control of pipeline and petroleum companies refusing to leave his post as governor, refusing to disband his own militia. That crisis was temporarily diffused, but it will be repeated all over the country as the Ukrainian government tries to tackle reforms.

Tavis: So what’s the world community to do?

English: Again, the first step is the cease fire must be respected in all of its elements, right? The Ukrainian side has to make sincere efforts towards some concessions on autonomy, on self-rule, to its enormous Russian-speaking population in the east. It’s losing its battle for hearts and minds, you know, tragically.

And it has to halt this because it won’t win militarily and we–that means in Washington, in Berlin, in Paris–have to convince the Ukrainian government that hoping for victory is not the way to go.

And then we can turn our attention to economic reforms and helping Ukraine. And in some way that includes Russia because Russia with its enormous supplies of energy…

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…have no illusions about Putin being a liberal, a nice guy, nothing like that. But he’s behaving like the leader of any other great power would when its strategic interests are issue, when they seem threatened.

And we on our side have to recognize that Russia does have legitimate interests and Russia has to be a party to this settlement. Again, either side hoping for total victory means total chaos and defeat for everyone.

Tavis: And what are your thoughts about the people of Ukraine tonight?

English: The people of Ukraine are many. The people in Western Ukraine have traditional European anti-Russian attitudes and we can fully understand them. They’re not all Nazis and neo-fascists. That’s a fringe element. Some of it is just the lessons they’ve learned from history.

People in Eastern Ukraine, many of them are Russians or Russia-leaning and we have to understand that, and every shade in between. But the country is increasingly fragmented. You know, here’s a recent set of statistics, of polling data that’s very concerning.

In Crimea that Russia annexed, a year after that annexation, every opinion poll not done by Russian agencies, but by German, American and even Ukrainian says that 80% or more of the people of Crimea think it was the right thing to do and look forward to a better future under Russia, not Crimea. So can we realistically talk about forcing Crimea back?

We don’t want to recognize a violation of international law as a precedent, but what’s the alternative? So we have to soft-pedal that. As far as Ukrainians elsewhere, they seem to hate everyone. Only 20% of Ukrainians have faith in the policies of the Poroshenko’s government that they elected.

Many of the Ukrainians in the middle with large Russian minorities, but not under separatist control, they now say that they trust Russian media and Russian TV more than Ukrainian. So a serious polarization, a deepening of these bitter feelings is underway.

Tavis: Well, that’s the part  that scares me. When the country is this polarized and this fragmented, I don’t know how out of all of that sort of political, social, economic misery comes a solution.

English: Stop the fighting as soon as possible. You’re right. There’s so much that’s gone wrong and the bitterness and the desire for vengeance now is so deep. You know, it sounds trite, but we learned in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia elsewhere that either side’s push for victory and for what it sees as justice at the expense of no interest in the other side’s concerns never leads to a lasting solution.

Tavis: USC’s Robert English tonight on the very delicate situation in the Ukraine. Thanks for your insights. Good to have you back, Professor.

English: Thank you.

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Last modified: April 2, 2015 at 1:50 pm