REPORT: Ukraine between Russia, the West, and Itself

Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) Director Angela Stent and Senior Fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, James Sherr. Photo Credit: Olivia Letts

By Olivia Letts, Reporter

“It’s never a dull moment to talk about Ukraine,” said foreign policy expert James Sherr as he opened up his public lecture on the future of Ukrainian politics and security entitled “Ukraine between Russia, the West, and Itself.” Sherr recently became a Senior Fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and is also an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. He is also a prolific author and has written extensively on the topics of diplomacy and defense in Russia and Ukraine. His talk, which took place on January 28 at the Georgetown Alumni House, was hosted by Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) and moderated by CERES director Angela Stent. Stent has previously worked with Sherr and affectionately introduced him as a “tough love proponent.” Sherr discussed the consequential nature of Ukraine’s upcoming elections in the face of an ongoing armed conflict exploited by Russia. He argued that Moscow wants to ensure a Ukraine in which it can enjoy privileged agency, and so it seeks to prevent its western neighbor from developing stronger ties with the West. However, Russia and Ukraine have fundamentally different views about the role of the state and, regardless of whether the Ukrainian government and the West choose to fold or take a stronger stance against Russian interference, continued conflict seems likely.

Whereas elections in Russia tend to only further entrench those in power, Sherr explained, the two upcoming elections in Ukraine (parliamentary and presidential) will significantly influence the country’s future direction. Ukrainians have experienced five years of war and hardship without any real ceasefire – just “peaks and lulls.” They have been the targets of covert action, cyberattacks, economic blockades, and misinformation campaigns – not just conventional Russian-sponsored insurgencies. The upcoming Ukrainian elections offer a chance for change, but Sherr pointed out that upheaval can follow elections and wars do not end simply because elections do.

Sherr emphasized several enduring realities that exist in Ukraine and shape its current political climate and relationship with Russia. First, its politics are far less centralized and more pluralistic than those of Russia. In Ukraine, there exists a certain distrust of power, whereas Russians tend to venerate the state. Second, Ukraine is a rather divided country, a feature frequently exploited by its attentive neighbor, Russia. Third, Russia and Ukraine approach their relationship through different frames of understanding despite a closely-intertwined history that has bred “familiarity, intimacy, understanding, irritation, [and] hatred.” Sherr described a Russian perception of Ukraine as closely attached and an integral part of a Russian empire. Without Ukraine in its orbit, Russia fears a permanent diminution in status.

Regarding the upcoming presidential elections in March, Sherr advised attendees to take opinion polls with a grain of salt and understand that corruption is a lazy word to use when analyzing Ukrainian politics. Corruption is a symptom of the overarching “baleful culture of power,” he explained, and it serves as a good point of reference when analyzing how each candidate relates to said culture. Sherr defined this culture of power as having four main components: the symbiotic relationship between business and power, low levels of public morality and faith in the system, bureaucratic inertia, and misfeasance of the judicial system. The two most likely-to-win presidential candidates, incumbent Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, each have their relationship with this culture of power. Sherr described Poroshenko as sensitive to criticism and unlikely to upend the status quo, but he could adopt a more sustainable policy of gradual reform. Tymoshenko, in contrast, has a weak grasp of economics and strong connections to the Kremlin but would likely follow her own course in implementing systemic changes.

Sherr made several final observations about Ukraine’s current situation before heading into the Q&A session. One was that Ukrainian politics will continue to be exciting – “stagnation is not an option.” Another was that Russia’s objective is either to subordinate Ukraine or wreck it, and the Kremlin will pursue this goal in a more aggressive, less prudent manner than in the recent past. Finally, there is a possibility that, despite current rhetoric and support, the West will lose interest in Ukraine and simply walk away.

Roughly 50-60 people attended the lecture and had a chance to ask Sherr questions before the reception. Sherr avoided discussing Crimea and stressed that, despite large numbers of Ukrainians viewing themselves as Russian, there is no legitimate justification for Russia throwing international law to the wayside in the way it handles Ukraine. In response to a question about the potential for recent events sparking a new period of nation-building, Sherr confirmed that, indeed, some Ukrainians have pointed out that Putin has done more to unify Ukraine and push its people together than anyone else in recent history. Putin’s goals in former satellite countries revolve around the idea that Russian civilization goes beyond Russia’s current borders, and the Slavic core of the former Soviet Union should be made whole again. However, Russian attempts to take advantage of any political upheaval in Ukraine, especially via military action, would likely have deleterious consequences for Russia.

It is true that external factors contribute extensively to Ukrainian separatist sentiment, but Sherr nevertheless suggested that upcoming elections could mark a turning point for Ukraine. Sherr therefore urged the West and international organizations to support reform measures in the government, pay greater attention to Ukrainian elections, and remain firm on the implementation of the Minsk II accords. Many Russians do not think Ukraine can stand on its own, explained Sherr, but its viability as a sovereign state will be strengthened by control over its own politics. After all, the eruption of the War in Donbas was not merely a sudden outburst of toxic Russian interference and separatism, as many assume. Local cleavages and the presence of Russian ethnic groups have been factors in Ukraine since long before the conflict erupted. The war was the result of a succession of events and domestic political crises that opened a Pandora’s box of tensions. To begin the process of reestablishing stability in Ukraine, the preservation of peaceful political transitions is a must.


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