A scholar of Russia, the former USSR and Eastern Europe, Professor English weighs in on the latest developments in the continuing crisis in Ukraine.
Professor Robert English
Tavis: Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev earlier today, just hours after the fragile attempt at a diplomatic solution to the crisis shattered after a shootout in eastern Ukraine left several people injured and dead, for that matter.
Back with us now to discuss the latest developments is Robert English, associate professor and director of USC’s School of International Relations. Dr. English, good to have you back, I wish under different circumstances.
Dr. Robert English: Nice to be here.
Tavis: So did your hopes rise and fall when you heard about this sort of fragile peace, or did you not buy it from the beginning?
English: No, a third variant. My hopes rose, and they’re still up there. I don’t think this spasm of violence is the end of the process. I think what Biden says to the Ukrainian government right now, and back channel negotiations, still have good potential for diffusing things. We haven’t gone over the precipice yet.
Tavis: What do you think Biden will say, or put another way, what should Vice President Biden say?
English: Publicly, he has to be tough, right? For our right-wing politics here, and to provide moral support to the Ukrainian government. Privately, he needs to tell them that the process of redoing the constitution, of moving towards a more federalized system that takes greater account of the rights of these autonomous regions, these heavily Russian ethnic regions, has to go forward.
Right now, Ukraine is a unitary state, what we like to call a centralized or unitary state. Most people would be surprised to know, for example, that governors are not elected locally. They are appointed from the center.
Things like tax policy, language, and cultural policies, policing all of these are determined at the center. If they’re going to hold the country together, they have to finally extend this olive branch and offer meaningful autonomy, some kind of federalized system, to their Russian or ethnic Russian-speaking citizens in the eastern regions.
Tavis: So the distinction that you’ve just laid out about what Biden ought to say publicly and what he ought to say privately, I’m kind of laughing – is that duplicity or is that diplomacy?
English: It’s diplomacy, and it gets tougher every year as domestic politics intrude more and more on foreign affairs. There was a time not so long ago, even after the Second World War, when presidents had a kind of free hand, and they could rely on broad support at home, in the Congress.
“Partisanship stopped at the water’s edge” was the expression. It’s not that way anymore because of our own political system and also because of the 24-hour news cycles and social media.
It gets tougher and tougher all the time to sustain a reasonable diplomatic course when they’re sniping at you from all sides.
Tavis: What autonomy, what ability, what power does the president really have to make a difference in this particular crisis, given the way Putin has decided he wants to behave?
English: Well he’s still the leader. He still decides foreign policy. Congress provides the money to implement it, but the president can order all kinds of actions and engage in all kinds of negotiations without waiting for Congress. Congress’ purse-string control comes into effect months, if not years, later.
Tavis: But Congress is not the entity that’s being lambasted at the moment. It’s the president, who you keep hearing from the right suggest that he ought to do more, he ought to be tougher, he ought to be this, he ought to be that.
So I understand that he’s the president and I’m not suggesting that the president ought not be held responsible. He’s the Commander-in-Chief. I’m just trying to get at what power he really does have to directly impact the situation.
English: Well it depends on the situation. It varies. But in this instance, I would propose the following. He can break the deadlock; he can change the terms of what’s underway now, dramatically, with a little luck and a lot of vision.
Again, if he and Biden work out the framework for this major step towards a redesign of the Ukrainian state system, towards a new constitution that would be a federal, not unitary state, and he sponsor it, he promotes it and gets the Ukrainians on board and then presents it to the Russian-dominated east, it’s going to be hard for it not to succeed.
It’ll be almost impossible for them to turn down, it’ll be almost impossible to continue this policy of provoking and supporting the secessionists or the anti-Ukrainian forces if thanks to President Obama and his mediation they’ve got what they’ve been asking for.
Tavis: There are those who believe, though, that that’s a lot easier said than done, in part because they would argue what we are witnessing right now is a sort of – how might I put this – shadow war that’s being waged by Putin inside the country. Do you believe that?
English: Sure. He’s doing that, but he hasn’t won it yet.
English: The best evidence we have, the best polls and journalists on the scene reporting is that even in Donetsk, this eastern city that’s the center of this move to break away from the Ukrainian state and maybe even join with Russia, even there it’s not much over a third of the people, of the ordinary people, who think they want to go that way.
Of course there’s a significant minority who do not want to do that, and the broad mass are unpersuaded in the middle. So even with all of these shadow forces or little green men, the obvious technical and organizational support that Russia is providing for these takeovers, these separatists, they haven’t won yet.
My fear is that time is running out, because this situation could go on for a little while longer. Even a matter of weeks, maybe even more than a month. But as soon as serious blood is spilled, that broad mass in the middle that could go either way will take sides.
You talk to most Ukrainians – as I say, the majority haven’t picked sides – and most will say, what’s this all about? We’re brothers. Can’t we get along and work something out? My cousin in Ukrainian, my wife’s brother; we’re intermarried.
My aunt, one of my grandfathers. So there’s still a sense that why can’t we keep this together and remain like brothers and sisters? Once the shooting starts in a big way, not a little –
Tavis: Skirmish, yeah.
English: – checkpoint skirmish between extremists on both sides, but that’s hitting civilians and ordinary people, then, as we’ve seen in the Balkans, as we’ve seen everywhere since communism’s collapse, it becomes so polarized that you reach a point of no return.
Tavis: I guess the question is whether or not you think that reality, that notion of mass bloodshed, is inevitable at this point.
English: No, I don’t. Again, that’s why I started by saying I still retain hope. It reminds me, the situation right now, of a game of chicken, brinksmanship. We’re essentially saying publicly to Putin, you have to back down first.
You have to stop this support, you have to get these people to disarm and evacuate the buildings they’ve taken over. If you don’t, we’re going to ratchet up the sanctions.
We’re offering no concessions, only demands and threats. It’s all sticks and no carrots. Putin, for his part, exactly the same. He says I won’t do that; I won’t make a move until you create a new Ukrainian government, until you take steps to guarantee their rights, and a whole list of other demands.
There’s no reason with careful diplomacy that we can’t compromise, and each side start moving to getting some of what it wants. But if we have this maximalist demand, and Putin’s is unrelenting as well, sure, then we’re getting closer to that precipice.
Tavis: I know these are apples and oranges, but I hope you’ll give me 30 seconds to set up why I’m phrasing this question this way. So I laugh every four years; it literally tickles me that we can have a two-year campaign for the White House and a week or two out from Election Day there’s still undecided voters.
I’ve never quite got what people are undecided about. They’ve been campaigning for two years, you’re down to the last week, and there’s still some category called “undecided.” I’ve never gotten it and probably never will.
Which leads me back to Ukraine. At least our elections with undecided voters a week out are not about life and death. You know where I’m going with this.
Tavis: This is a life-and-death matter in Ukraine, and you talk about this big mass in the middle of people who are undecided. How can you be undecided as a Ukrainian about what’s happening in your country at this very moment?
English: Well I’ll tell you why. To continue your analogy of an election, because they don’t like either candidate. In fact, they think both candidates stink. If there was a good choice offered them in the middle, a moderate, then they wouldn’t be undecided.
Tavis: But this is not just about an election. This is about your country and the future of your country, the direction of your country, how the country will be governed.
I don’t want to reduce this, I don’t think you are reducing it just to a choice of one or two candidates.
English: No, I meant by the candidates, that was my analogy for the program offered by the western Ukrainians and this interim revolutionary government is for rapid movement to the west –
Tavis: I take your point.
English: – fairly hard-line unitary policies, and not much regard for the special concerns of the Russian speakers in the east. And the program offered, the direction that Putin and his people offer is rejoin the Soviet Union.
Not literally, but it scares a lot of people that that’s what it would lead to – sort of absorption by Russia and living in the worst of what Russia offers. They don’t want either of those.
They reasonably – here the people are smarter than the politicians. They have an innate sense, even if they don’t know all the economic and constitutional details, they have an innate sense that there’s common ground here if the two sides would moderate their positions.
Tavis: Here’s the exit question. I don’t expect, and I’m not naïve, don’t expect that in a matter of hours or a day or so that Joe Biden’s mere presence is going to magically turn this around. But what would, how would you define Joe Biden’s trip as a success? What elements would have to, would make up your definition of success for him?
Or has he been successful, and we as a country been successful, just by his going there and making the statement by his presence?
English: That’s important, to continue to show support for the country and its integrity. Success will be, first of all, very simple, if there’s not an immediate or near-term escalation of violence, if whatever discussions are underway lead to prolonging this dangerously short but still existing space we have for diplomacy.
Again, I can’t know this and we’ll only learn the details in six months or a year, but success would be if behind the scenes he said look, we’ll give you lots of aid, we’ll support your reforms, we’ll tide you through this bankruptcy you’re facing, we’ll tide you over.
But in return, it’s time for you to disarm your own right-wing groups, your own illegal formations, right away, and it’s time to start charting a really practical path towards federalization, towards constitutional reform.
You’ve delayed too long, and that’s, it’s adding to the anger on the Russian and the pro-Russian side.
Tavis: USC’s Robert English on the developments that seem to be changing by the minute in Ukraine, which we, of course, will continue to cover here on PBS. Professor English, good to have you back on the program.
English: Thank you.
Tavis: Thanks for your insights.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.