March 16, 2014

Lecture: ‘Terrifying’ Atmosphere Surrounds Ukraine Conflict

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Speaking to Cornellians Friday alongside a panel of experts, Julia Ioffe, senior editor for The New Republic, explained the current situation between Ukraine and Russia.

According to Ioffe, the protesters in Kiev did not want to topple the government like Russian President Vladimir Putin claims, but rather only wanted to remove Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power.

“As someone who works in the media, there’s a lot of information out there, [but] there’s also a lot of misinformation,” Ioffe said. “The Kremlin has been working in overdrive to muddy the waters and to give you certain ideas of what’s been happening over there that don’t necessarily correspond to the truth.”

According to BBC News, the Ukrainian parliament held a vote to impeach the Yanukovych on Feb. 22, and Putin has characterized the recent upheaval in Ukraine as a coup d’état instigated by radicals and fascists sponsored by the West. Ioffe said the actual role of radicals and fascists in the protests was minimal at best and has been heavily exaggerated by the media.

“If anyone was really involved on the ground in Kiev, it was Russia,” Ioffe said. “Their guy, Yanukovych, lost, and what you see now is in part reaction to that.”

On March 1, the Russian parliament approved Putin’s request to deploy troops in the Crimean peninsula, purportedly to protect the ethnic-Russian citizens living there.

Ten days later, the Crimean parliament announced that it would hold a referendum on whether to rejoin Russia or stay with Ukraine. The Moscow-backed referendum — which Kiev and have been described as being illegal by Western countries — passed Sunday, with 95.5 percent of voters supporting unification with Russia.

Ioffe added that she was not surprised to see the type of tactics the Russians were using to manufacture the crisis in response to the political instability in Kiev, and referenced the pro-Russian militias equipped with Russian arms and uniforms in Crimea that seized control of government buildings prior to March 1.

“What’s interesting is that Ukraine has taken a back seat in all of this,” Ioffe said. “[Moscow] made this about a grand struggle between Russia and the West and the Western conspiracy of the West installing leaders in Russia’ backyard and doing all of this to destabilize Russia.”“Nationalism, in the Russian understanding, is purely ethnic.” — Prof. Lena Surzhko-Harned

Ioffe described the atmosphere in Russia proper as “terrifying,” mentioning that access to oppositional websites was being blocked and that what was left of the independent media was being shut down.

“One of my friends in Russia thinks that there’s a civil war coming, I swear,” Ioffe said. “It’s getting really nasty, the attacks by the state on anyone who disagrees.”

In her closing comments, Ioffe said she was growing increasingly concerned with the vilification of the West as a force that is corrupting Russia.

“The more I see the developments of the last two years, I see myself thinking about this return to this mythical Russian peasant past that probably never existed,” she said.

Following Ioffe’s speech, a panel moderated by Prof. Matthew Evangelista, government, and including Prof. Fredrik Logevall, history, Prof. Lena Surzhko-Harned, political science at Mercyhurst University, and Kateryna Pishchikova, visiting scholar at Cornell Institute for European Studies and associate fellow at the Foundation for International Relations and Foreign Dialogue, discussed Putin’s motivations and the international community’s response to the Crimean crisis.

Surzhko-Harned said it was important to interpret nationalism correctly and mentioned that Putin and his faction could not discern between the different understandings of national identity.

“[Americans] are representative of a national identity that is multiethnic. For Russia, it is a kind of difficult thing to wrap their minds around,” she said. “Nationalism, in the Russian understanding, is purely ethnic.”

Pishchikova said it is important to reframe the conversation to properly reflect global and regional realities.

“What the Ukrainians have learned from this is that changing regimes is not enough,” she said.

Logevall said the crisis would weaken the notion that America’s failure to act in response to Russia’s actions will weaken its relationships with its key allies.

“It is striking is how often we get this certain assessment of states that it is seems to me exaggerates this sense that doom is upon us and this unwillingness to place the issues in a historical context,” he said.