International relations scholar Robert English

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The director of the University of Southern California’s School of International Relations and former Defense Department policy analyst assesses the crisis in Ukraine.

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 last few days have brought positive developments in Ukraine, raising hopes for a permanent end to the unbridled violence and chaos that’s ripped Kiev over the last month.

It’s also focused the world’s attention on a political tug-of-war, though, that many see as testing the limits of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s influence over the region.

Here to give some insights into what might be Ukraine’s future I Robert English, director of USC’s School of International Relations and former policy analyst for the department of Defense. Dr. English, good to have you on this program.

Dr. Robert English: Thank you, nice to be here.

Tavis: For those who have been following this or reading about the last couple of days but don’t know what the genesis of this was, how did this mess jump off in Ukraine?

English: The proximate cause, the spark to the latest conflagration was Yanukovych, President Yanukovych’s decision after raising hopes that he would sign an agreement to begin the process of joining the European Union to not sign that agreement, and instead to turn to Russian economic aid.

That was an enormous disappointment for that part of the country with these strong European ambitions, and they began protesting, took to the streets.

Tavis: Tell me more about why it is that the citizens in Ukraine were so disturbed by this decision to not go forward with this deal with the EU.

English: There is this legitimate ambition for a better life in the sense that joining the European Union, with all of its trade preferences and advantages of aid and support and reforms, would make a difference in their lives, maybe not tomorrow, but in the long run.

So the expectations were raised very high, and then they were dashed. I think that’s a key point we often overlook, that partly politicians, and outside politicians, European Union officials, Americans, and especially Russians raised this to such a fever pitch, that this was a crucial and the only decision point, and you probably remember comments about a civilizational choice, right, that this was the final chance.

So it raised the stakes, the perceived stakes, so high that the disappointment exploded and I think that was incorrect.

Tavis: A civilizational choice is a huge standard. What’s meant by that, or what was meant by that? That’s a high bar, to say that the civilization of this country rests on this decision.

English: I would say two things. The first is that it’s exaggerated. Russia is also part of Europe. Russia has a long way to go to become a more liberal democracy. Europe has problems of its own. It’s not all black or white.

But the second thing is I don’t think that politicians can really choose civilizations. I think more likely civilizations and culture determine politics. So the sense that the decision of Putin in Moscow, the decision of Yanukovych in Kiev, could change things overnight, black or white, our path or theirs, is a gross oversimplification.

But again, it amplified the perceived stakes, and therefore amplified the passions and violence.

Tavis: What was it that the citizens of Ukraine thought would be forthcoming had this deal gone through that they ended up protesting because it didn’t? But when you say, “Dash their hopes,” in terms of everyday life, what were their expectations of was to be forthcoming?

English: Well this is a great question, because it provides me a chance to give an example of the misperceptions that I’m talking about. The fact is while many Ukrainian citizens might have thought that they’d have near-term benefit and immediate improvement in living standards, the outlook was anything but.

All you have to do is look back over Poland’s recent history, Hungary, any of the countries – Bulgaria, Romania – that traveled this long, hard path to joining the European Union, and you know that once you sign this session agreement and begin the real, difficult process of transforming your country’s domestic institutions in every respect to join Europe, all you have is 10 years of pain.

Because the first thing that’s asked of you is cut your budget deficit, and that usually means reducing aid for people on the bottom of the social ladder. It means cutting jobs. There are usually industries that have been subsidized and have padded payrolls, and so (snaps fingers) cut the subsidies.

There’s unemployment, and it’s happened that way everywhere. The immediate benefit comes to the business class because they gain access to the European market, and those benefits come very quickly.

So again, those people probably had a romanticized version, a vision of what lay ahead if the agreement were signed, again because both European officials and Russians, for their part, painted it in such all-or-nothing terms.

Tavis: What was there to gain for the EU had this deal gone through?

English: An expensive, weak junior member that’s going to need a lot of help for a lot of time. But in the long run, expanding the union. Eventually that means 45 million new members, the citizens of Ukraine.

It gradually expands their market. Ukraine is rich in a lot of – it’s a rich agricultural country, and it also has significant minerals and other resources that if properly tapped under a reformed economic system would contribute to European prosperity a decade, 15, maybe 20 years out.

Tavis: So you follow this stuff every day, but for everyday people who don’t follow it every day but have a cursory understanding or reading of the news, pardon my English, the EU ain’t been doing great of late. So why is it that Ukraine at one point thought that its hope, its salvation, was in being a part of this particular partnership, this union?

English: They were suffering from certain illusions. They ought to know better if they study the way academics do the detailed, painful, complicated history of joining the EU.

But many had illusions that it would mean immediate aid, immediate financial support. So they were just maybe a little, they had a romanticized version of how quickly it could happen.

On the other hand, it’s clear that Russia plays a part in this as well. Russia has been issuing dire warnings of, again, exactly the opposite direction, which goes to this problem of what the Ukrainian people really think.

Because you asked the question the Ukrainian people wanted this, their hopes were dashed. Well, those who came out on the square thought that way, but let’s not forget – and I don’t want to call it “mob rule,” but that wasn’t an electoral process.

That wasn’t a referendum. That was a lot of disappointed, angry, and highly motivated people who came out. We haven’t heard from those who might have been more Euro-skeptical, those who lean more to Russia.

I’m not saying they’re the majority, but this is a divided country.

Tavis: So we’ll talk about President Yanukovych on the run in just a second. First, though, since we mentioned President Putin of Russia two or three times in this conversation, what’s at stake here for him? This guy can’t seem to catch a break. (Laughs)

The Olympics go there and he has all this negative press. Although the Games have been fun and fascinating to watch, he personally got a bunch of negative press around a variety of issues; namely, security, et cetera. Now he’s connected to this story in another way. What’s at stake for Putin in this process?

English: Two things, I think. One is the immediate prospects for this Eurasian Union, this customs union that would be comprised of several former Soviet republics, and for which Ukraine was the big, big prize.

Without Ukraine, it’s kind of a hollow, it’s a shadow. It only has Russia and some small countries. Ukraine would have been an important addition. But bigger than that I think is the fear that as Ukraine moves west, the U.S. especially, but European leaders as well, will not only seek to expand the European Union, which is no direct threat, really.

But that always seems to go in tandem with expanding NATO, and the Russians are very worried about a new NATO ally with all those bases on its southern flank. It’s especially explosive because Russia maintains its own naval base, it’s Baltic – I’m sorry, its Black Sea fleet is based in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, part of Ukraine.

So this is explosive should Ukraine go in the direction of joining NATO, and Putin has a long memory. You don’t need a long memory. It was only a few years ago under Bush, President George Bush, that we were pushing for Ukrainian fast-track membership in NATO.

They have every reason to fear that the next president might try to repeat that. So for them, Ukraine is of enormous strategic significance, and they do not want it to become part of this American-dominated military alliance.

Tavis: What a difference a few years makes. So Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, is now on the run, now charged with mass murder. What’s going to happen with him?

English: I don’t know. I don’t know. I assume he’ll be arrested at some point. I haven’t heard the latest news, if he’s still in Crimea. As far as we know, he gave the orders; he’s the guy in charge.

But we can get past that. Yanukovych is yesterday’s guy. What really concerns me is what we spoke about before – these heightened expectations and this believe, it’s, again, pretty romanticized, that Europe offers a fast track to prosperity.

Ukraine is in such awful shape that the 10 years of pain and suffering as they reform and adjust that let’s say Poland went through will be more like 20 for Ukraine.

Tavis: So Yanukovych, to your point, is yesterday’s news, but the opposition leader, she has now been released and we now know that elections are set and those who want to run are going to throw their name in the hat.

So in the coming days, what do you make of what will happen with the electoral process for a new leader in Ukraine?

English: The pro-European, pro-western liberals had a chance in power after the Orange Revolution; that, again, removal of another previous corrupt Ukrainian leader in 2004-2005.

Then, without deluging you with Ukrainian names, Viktor Yushchenko came to power, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader recently released from jail that you mentioned, was his prime minister.

All the conditions seemed perfect for rapid progress forward. Instead they were sort of incompetent as managers and as political allies. They turned out to be only adversaries.

The liberal forces proved just incapable of making rapid progress and managing the country. That’s why they were voted out and Yanukovych was democratically voted in.

So let’s hope this time we see more maturity and a little less naked ambition. But unfortunately, a lot of naked ambition has been on display.

Tavis: A quick exit question for those who – and this is always important to me and I think to the audience. Why does all of this matter? Why does any of this matter to citizens of this country?

English: I think it doesn’t matter to us directly the way it does to Europe that has to be worried about stability on their continent, refugees, economic prosperity. It matters because of Russia.

We need good relations with Russia. I’m not writing off Ukrainian hopes or aspirations. Forty-four million people, after all. But we have to do this in concert with Russia, and we can.

There are compromises that take account of both European/western interests and Russian interests that will allow Ukraine to liberalize in a way that satisfies everyone.

Unfortunately, the zero-sum mentality that both sides have shown, this continuation of the Cold War approach, has only aggravated Ukraine’s crises to date.

Tavis: USC’s Robert English tonight on what is happening and what might be happening, what should happen. We don’t know what’s going to happen in Ukraine, but worth following for all the reasons just stated. Professor English, good to have you on. Thanks for your insights.

English: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.

Last modified: February 25, 2014 at 8:56 pm