Opinion | Letters to the Editor

Letter to the editor: Ukraine crisis is not simple

To the Editor:

Rana Hilal’s news article (“Professors weigh in on Ukraine crisis,” March 3), recently caught my attention. Hilal writes that “professors, along with students from or with an interest in Eastern Europe, are united in their uncertainty and concern for the situation”, and yet her article reflects none of the situation’s “uncertainty.”

Professors and trusted members of academia are generally reliable and unbiased sources in situations like this. The perspectives of Valerii Kuchynskyi, a career diplomat from Ukraine and a SIPA professor, or Robert Legvold, a professor in the department of political science whose areas of interest include “the foreign policies of Russia [and] Ukraine” should have provided some novel insight into the delicate situation unfolding in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true: Hilal’s article suffers from severe tunnel vision, focusing less on Ukraine and more on Russia and Russia’s apparent foreign policy transgressions. It does a twofold disservice to its readers: first by presenting academia as some sort of monolithic, ideologically united group, and again by presenting the situation in Ukraine as simple and without the need for a divergence of opinions.

We’ve become accustomed to offhandedly dismissing statements made by the Kremlin—this approach is not wholly unjustified, but it has lead us astray before. Consider, for example, when the Kremlin announced that it had material proof of Syrian rebels using chemical weapons. This claim was later corroborated by independent U.N. reports. So where are our professors’ reflections on the ascension of the leaders of ultra-nationalist Svoboda and Right Sector to top posts in the interim Ukrainian government? Are we to continue ignoring these concerns, simply because they’re brought forward by Russian officials?

This letter is neither a defense of Putin, nor of the Duma that approved military intervention in Ukraine. But precedent shows that these conflicts rarely parallel the Star Wars-ian “good rebels” versus “evil empire” narrative as closely as we’d like. Instead of perpetuating a one-sided narrative of “the Russian aggression” and ignoring the true nuances of the situation, Spectator should aim to report a more cautious and multifaceted perspective in the future.

Mikhail Klimentov, CC ’16

March 5, 2014

To respond to this letter, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

So, what are the true nuances of the situation? It is pretty obvious that Russia is the aggressor.

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Mikhail posted on

Hey Anon,

Thanks for reading! One of the aspects I mentioned in the article was the ascension of members of Svoboda and the Right Sector into top positions in Ukraine's interim government. Svoboda and the Right Sector are ultra-nationalist, violent factions, with ties to terrorists and paramilitary groups. Not the people you'd want running any kind of government. So what's astounding to me is how the US threw its support behind these people from the get-go. That's one of the more interesting aspect, in my opinion.
That said, I have no intention of defending Putin or Russia's intervention. It's clearly a violation of international law. But if you leave it at that, you've left out a huge part of the picture, and you're missing a lot of context.

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You voted '+1'.
Estelle posted on

Hi Mikhail,
I think you raise many valid points, such as the article having focused too much on one perspective in covering on-campus responses to this crisis. However, I'm rather confused as to how the Svoboda and the Right Sector being in power is a relevant nuance to this situation. Yes, they are ultra-nationalist, and yes, they are violent. But does this relate to the occupation of Crimea by Russia? I don't think America has the right to invade Canada should an ultra-nationalist government take place. Japan's government is successively becoming extremist and aggressive, but I don't see that as having any relationship to its sovereignty. I believe you rightfully point out deficiencies and problems in Ukraine's own interim government, but I think those problems are issues confined to Ukraine's own political clime, completely separate from Russia's intervention.

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Mikhail posted on

Hey Estelle,

I would say we have fairly similar views on this issue. The ultra-nationalism matters for two reasons:
First, I would say that it's a reality of international politics that certain states try to maintain peace and stability in neighboring states for their own security (although admittedly, different states do this in different ways). Consider the European Union's concern with Greek quasi-fascist groups gaining prominence. The reason this is a big deal security-wise for Russia is because Russia has had a history of terribly destructive invasions, as well as a historic distrust of the West. Ukraine has acted as a buffer state of sorts for a long time—if Ukraine joins the EU or fosters strong anti-Russian sentiment, Russia as a state is more vulnerable.
Moreover, the Crimea has a significant ethnically Russian population. I'm willing to bet that if Canada started to entertain militantly anti-US groups in its government, AND there was a large ethnically-US population (this is a hypothetical, stick with me) that felt threatened by these developments, the US would intervene in some way.
These may not be good reasons for Russia to intervene, but they explain the rationale.
Moreover, it's important to note that the US implicitly threw its support behind these ultra-nationalist groups; that is a cause for concern, and an issue that hasn't been properly investigated.

Thanks for commenting!

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Estelle posted on

Hi Mikhail,
Thank you for taking the time to explain your points in such a thoughtful manner. While I still have difficulty reconciling Russia's rationale as a nuance of the situation- I cannot help but see it as but another driving force in the conflict which, while undoubtedly important to understanding the situation, may not be as essential to how the other nations react to the crisis- I am grateful that you explained the Russian rationale in such a succinct and even-handed manner. I believe that, just as Russia has national interests invested in Crimea and has acted accordingly, the U.S. and other nations are free to act upon their own interests. But that does not change the fact that Russia's side should at least be given fair illumination. I personally think that you branched out your claims in both this letter to the editor and these comments in a way that provided that illumination. I for one gained a larger perspective from reading both articles, and I also appreciated your insightful reply.
Thank you for replying, and I hope you have a great day!

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Anonymous posted on

It's a bit hypocritical for Russia(ns) to complain about the rise of ultra-nationalist factions in Ukraine when its Russia's own nationalist factions that have supported the invasion of Ukraine in an attempt to reunite the former Soviet Union under their rule, wouldn't you say?

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Nathaniel Byerly, CC'15 posted on

What nuances?

The "Potemkin army" that currently occupies Crimea? You know, the one that has Russian uniforms, Russian vehicles, Russian weaponry, and soldiers from Russia, not Crimea?

The puppet government of Crimea, led by a man who only received 4% of the vote in the most recent Ukrainian elections?

Should we talk about the lack of discrimination against the Russian minority? (While we ignore the fact that X's have been painted on the doors of the pro-Kiev Crimean Tatar ethnic minority? What's next, a convenient symbol they can put on their clothes so the populace knows they're a minority?)

No, I see Russian troops in another country under the guise of being peacekeepers. Since when has a "peacekeeping" force acted in a country and then attempted to take it over, annexing it to its own country? Oh, that's right, Russia did the same thing in Georgia prior to its 2008 war there, when it handed out passports to citizens of two enclaves in Georgians and then claimed that these "Russian citizens" were under threat and that Russia was justified in protecting its "citizens" from Georgia's government. Russian troops still exist in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Now Russia wants to do the same thing elsewhere by making threats of handing out Russian passports to co-ethnics in the Baltic republics and Poland, not to mention Ukraine. And we're to believe that there's some kind of nuance here?

Nonsense. The only "nuance" is that flimsy cover of plausible deniability which Russia wants the rest of the world to swallow hook, line, and sinker. At least there's no attempt in this piece to excuse the crimes of the Russian state by pointing at the US' acts in Iraq…two wrongs don't make a right, never have and never will. That "whataboutism" would just be stealing a page from the Soviet Union's book, highlighting Russia's sad return to autocracy and authoritarianism under Putin.

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Mikhail posted on

Hey Nathaniel,

Thanks for commenting. Let's take this point by point.
As for the "Potemkin army," I made it clear in my letter that I had no intention of defending Russia's occupation of Crimea. That said, according to the most recent available data that I could find, Crimea has a majority ethnic-Russian population. It has only been ~60 years since Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine as a symbolic gesture. So it's not wholly unfounded that Putin would be concerned for the ethnic Russians in Crimea.

As for a lack of discrimination, I'm not totally sure how you can say that. The interim parliament recently voted to criminalize the use of Russian in government positions, or the teaching of Russian in schools. These may not be examples of violent discrimination, but I'd consider these to be even more onerous. I'll get to the violent examples later.

In the case of Crimean Tatars, I would argue that you can't attribute the racism solely to Russians—it has existed in the region for a while. Perhaps the current crisis has exacerbated that sentiment, but the pro-Russian government actually needs Tatar votes and has been pandering heavily to that demographic. Whether or not that's genuine is a whole different topic, but I don't think it's defensible to say that Russians are totally racist against the Tatar population and Ukrainians are totally blameless. In fact, this is one of the more nuanced points: the ultra-nationalist and often violently racist factions currently growing in Ukraine.

This is the main source of the nuance: the US has pledged its support for a faction that may not be worth that support (much like our support for the rebels in Syria, which is why I brought up precedent in the letter). What started as a student protest against a legitimately corrupt administration became a platform for some pretty terrible factions, namely Svoboda and the Right Sector (leaders of which now have posts in the interim government).

My last point is in regards to your comment about Georgia: an independent fact-finding mission in regards to the Russia-Georgia conflict found that Georgia was at fault for starting the conflict with its initial shelling of Tskhinvali. One of the points in this letter was that it's a bit ridiculous to attribute every bad part of every conflict to Russia without considering the historical and geopolitical context. Georgia was found to be at fault just as much if not more than Russia here. Here's a link to the first part of that report:
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/30_09_09_iiffmgc_report.pdf)

I'd like to reiterate that I have no intention of defending Putin. However, it is important to note that these conflicts tend to not be as black and white as you seem to think.

Thanks for reading!

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Nathaniel Byerly, CC'15 posted on

Mikhail,
Thanks for writing back.
I understand that you don't defend Russia's acts, but I find it problematic to assume that Putin is truly concerned with the ethnic Russian population and isn't using them this as a goal for geopolitical aims, such as securing Russian access to the Black Sea via Sevastopol, ensuring continued Russian influence over European oil and gas supplies, and creating a buffer zone between Russia and the rest of Europe.
I will agree with you that the new Ukrainian government acted foolishly in attempting to limit the status of the Russian language, but your claims of the government criminalizing the usage of Russian in the government is questionable at best: according to Politifact, the bill to do so was vetoed by the interim Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchynov. Furthermore, as Politifact reports, the bill would not have affected Crimea, which has a special status under Ukrainian law. Essentially, your position here seems to lack the necessary nuance--and facts.

Now, you're totally correct that the rise of the far-right in Ukraine is reason for concern--but this is no justification for invasion, or even for curtailing diplomatic relations. Take Hungary, where the far-right (and decently anti-Semitic) Jobbik party has gained a position in government--but neither Russia nor the U.S. has done anything substantive in response.

Moreover, to say "the US has pledged support for a faction that may not be worth that support" is blatantly misconstruing the nature of the opposition, and it's here where I strongly, strongly disagree. The US does not support Svoboda and the far-right; rather, it supports a democratic Ukraine that is able to chose its own political path free of external (Russian) military influence. Are the ultra-nationalists a part of Ukraine's government? Unfortunately, yes. But they are not the largest part (far from it), and it's questionable whether the old regime was any better, given that it embezzled millions upon millions of dollars, with Yanukovich even constructing a private zoo and *two* garages of valuable cars for himself while his dentist son quickly amassed a ~500 million dollar fortune. Is this the alternative? Because that's the alternative that Putin offers: Russian-style 'democracy'.

Essentially, if faced with the choice between a democratic Ukraine and a puppet Ukraine, I'll take a democratic one any day. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the merely good.

Lastly, about Georgia: just because Georgia started a small border war does not justify the massively disproportionate usage of force and the de facto annexation of Georgian territory to Russia as the protectorates of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Also, the parallels of Russian 'peacekeepers' protecting the nominally Russian citizenry of these regions is something that has clear parallels to the Crimean situation. It's not a perfect analogy, but it's certainly a relevant and troubling one.

Basically, Russia has the potential to do plenty of good; it also has the potential to do plenty of bad. We should not strive to overlook reality and morality in our attempt to provide a perfectly fair and balanced perspective. Sometimes, one country is far worse than another, and it ought to be labeled as such. In these cases, nuance may only allow the aggressor to get away with violating the peace.

Thanks though for writing!

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Mikhail posted on

Nathaniel,
I appreciate you writing back—it's not too often that this type of conversation happens in the comment section of a political article.
I don't doubt that Russia is doing the things you've described; in fact, I asserted that that was exactly what was happening in an earlier comment (in response to Estelle). I'm not trying to absolve Russia of any guilt here. However, I do think that a disproportionate amount of attention is being paid to Russia, compared to the ultra-nationalism in Ukraine, as well as historical context and the backgrounds of the politicians in this interim government. Moreover, while the corruption of Yanukoviche's government is certainly something to be reckoned with, Turchynov was also a high-ranking politician before ascending to the post of president, and I don't doubt that there are skeletons in his closet (Wikipedia lists just a few—I'm sure there are more, as is true for Yanukovich). There's likely to be a fair amount of corruption in this new government.
In regards to the veto, it wouldn't make sense politically for Turchynov to not veto the parliament's decision; I consider that a victory of circumstance rather than one of moderation or common sense. Moreover, Crimea isn't the only part of Ukraine with a large ethnic-Russian population, so saying that Crimea wouldn't be affected ignores the rest of Eastern Ukraine and any Russians in Ukraine with political ambitions. It's a very dangerous sign that such a proposal gained any traction at all.
That said, I'm all for a reformed Ukraine. I was quite disappointed that Yanukovich turned away from EU membership. I'd be happy with a "merely good" government. However, I fear that we haven't applied the appropriate amount of scrutiny to be sure that this is, in fact, a good government.
You prefer the analogy to Georgia, whereas I prefer an analogy to Syria, where we chose the objectively "good" side of the fight, and later realized that the "good" was being carried out by some very very bad factions, and that we had contributed to the development of these factions. That's my concern in this LTE. I do appreciate your criticism, though—I think it's mostly valid, although a tad overstated and uni-directional (in my opinion).
Thanks!

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