Alexander Motyl: "Ukraine is important to the US as a counterweight to Russia"
American historian of Ukrainian descent, Rutgers University Professor on Washington's policy towards Kyiv, Ukraine's image, and the perception of Ukrainian politicians in the US
U.W.: President Obama's Administration keeps receiving strong pleas from the Congress to help Ukraine, but his policy remains rather undetermined. Why is that?
- I would not like to defend Barack Obama here, but, being a president who had nothing to do with Ukraine for the past seven years, that is, before the Maidan, I would say that in fact he did a lot during this past year. Obama agreed to sanctions, and it is him and the US who keep putting pressure on the EU to enhance them as well. Overall, the US policy towards Kyiv is quite bold. Provided that he (Barack Obama. – Ed.) was never interested in Ukraine at all, the fact that he is paying a lot of attention to it today is rather positive. Of course, the negative side is that Kyiv is still waiting for the arms supplies that have been already discussed rather positively by just about everyone, including politicians in the Senate and the House of Representatives and advisers on different levels, from junior ones to top analysts. The pressure to start the supplies is tremendous, but the president is somehow hesitant.
So, going back to your question: why? This may have two different reasons. One is the "reset" of relations with Russia at the beginning of Obama's presidency. This was his initiative, to a large extent, because under Bush, the relations deteriorated. Obviously, for any man, the more so for a president, it is hard to change one course for another. Another reason may be the fact that the US, in the last seven or eight years, especially under Obama, tried to move away from Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a major goal. Whether these wars were just or not, in any case, they were not very successful. So, again, there is a kind of a contradiction: on the one hand, you are retreating, while on the other hand, you are being told that you must advance. It is somewhat difficult. It would have been easier for Bush to go ahead in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in Ukraine. I think, Obama gets justly accused for not being particularly strong in foreign policy issues, especially the ones related to security. After all, he is a man who spent his entire career at the local level. He is rather a local politician, that is, not the one dealing with global issues, although he is capable of thinking globally, and he has repeatedly proved it. But many times he was criticized for not liking foreign policy: he would much rather focus on domestic policy instead, but something gets in his way over and over again.
Besides, the crisis in Syria continues. A year ago, he told President Assad of serious consequences in case chemical weapons are used. Assad used them, with no consequences. Obama was once bitten there, so he is being twice shy here. I think, however, that despite all doubts and drawbacks, the pressure of the US policymakers is so strong today, and Putin's insolence is so obvious (his aggression, imperialism and readiness to huge provocations not only against Ukraine, but also against the Baltic States, Poland, and Belarus) that Obama is now in a sort of a deadlock. He has nowhere to maneuver, and I believe that sooner or later he will agree. Ukraine is already getting non-lethal weapons. This is an important step. Besides, the training of the Ukrainian military by American instructors will resume. That is, the way is being cleared. The US is not letting Ukraine down. So, Obama is slowly moving in the right direction, and the only logical step for him to make eventually is to start supplying weapons.
U.W.: Has President Obama developed an agenda for Ukraine over the past year?
- Almost so. Ukraine as such, from the perspective of its size and geopolitical importance, is of no special significance to the US, it does not play any exclusive role, neither economic, nor political. Of course, if it becomes strong, the situation might change. However, Ukraine is strategically important to the United States and Europe (to the US primarily). When Russia became a strategic problem, or at least a challenge, Ukraine suddenly gained weight. By the way, this trend could be observed during the last 25 years. During the times when Washington and Moscow had normal relations, the US were relatively indifferent towards Ukraine. Some kind of funding was provided for the civil society, but no one was particularly interested. But when the confrontation with Russia escalated, Kyiv enjoyed increased attention. In this way, Ukraine is important to the US as a kind of a counterweight to Russia and as a buffer zone. When Russia is a problem, Ukraine is important. Since in the last year Moscow has not only become a problem, but has also breached all agreements and is ready to blow up the entire post-war security architecture and start a war, the attitude of Americans towards Russia and, at the same time, towards Ukraine is changing. I think that Kyiv will remain important, giving rise to the Ukrainian political agenda that will be more or less independent of the Russian one for as long as Russia remains a problem. Of course, it would be better for Russia to become normal, but this is unlikely to happen in the near future.
U.W.: To what extent is the policy of the Obama Administration affected by the fear of a nuclear strike from Russia?
- First of all, I believe that Putin is bluffing. Since the time when Americans dropped two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been no such cases, even though there have been all sorts of occasions. Various "bandit" countries had nuclear weapons, and their leaders threatened to use them, but no one dared. Therefore, I think, Putin just wants to show how strong he is, and how powerful Russia is, and that they are not afraid of anything. Secondly, the very fact that he is making such statements (even if we think that he would not use nuclear weapons) is a proof that this person is not quite reasonable and would go to any length. And this is certainly frightening, because Europeans and Americans, for all their flaws, are rather reasonable.
U.W.: Does Ukraine present itself properly in the US? Are Ukrainian politicians perceived more seriously today?
- There are a few aspects to this. The perception of Ukraine has changed radically. You have to remember that the so-called "Ukraine fatigue" lasted from 2007 (or 2008) to 2013, when both politicians, analysts and the general public were no longer interested in it. I know this from personal experience. At that time, writing an article on Ukraine was easy, but it was very hard to publish it in a serious magazine. Now, it's the opposite. Back then, Ukraine was seen as thuggish, corrupt and good for nothing. Maidan has changed things. Of course, certain skepticism remains. It is still corrupt, but will it remain so? Will the reforms be implemented? These are the questions. Ukrainians have shown that they are willing to fight for their country, and this is very positive. It turned out that there is this spirit of patriotism that unites Ukrainian and Russian speakers, ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, and so on. So, the overall image of Ukraine has changed for the better quite radically. Of course, there are a few voices here and there, mostly from the left or from the far right, that sound negative. It is the same in Europe, but the mainstream perception is good. As for the politicians, their image has also changed. The attitude towards Yushchenko during his last years in office was very negative, and it was even worse towards Yanukovych, but Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko are perceived relatively positively. Of course, the question remains as to whether they are real reformers, but at least so far they have not done anything wrong.
- Not quite. Ukrainian diplomats in Europe and the United States could have done better. This is pretty basic stuff: to have informal weekly meetings with journalists; to give large press conferences monthly. Had this been done in Tel Aviv, New York, Chicago, Paris, and Brussels on a weekly basis, it would have had a tremendous impact on journalists and analysts. This is another opportunity to influence the discourse. Ukraine, among other things, could much better use the Diaspora potential, not only in the sense of providing funds for medicines (this is already being done). In the Diaspora, there are a lot of people in high positions who are willing to help, and they are looking for such opportunities. This is the so-called human capital, and Kyiv could use it in different ways, by incorporating it into the work of embassies and consulates or by establishing closer ties between the media in Ukraine and the people here. All of the above could improve Ukraine's political chances and its image, as well as the discourse prevailing here with respect to Ukraine.
Alexander J. Motyl is an American historian of Ukrainian descent, political scientist, writer, artist, and researcher of imperialism and nationalism. He was born in 1953 in New York, and studied painting and history at Columbia University. Today, he is a Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University (USA) and the Director of the Central and East European Studies Program. Mr. Motyl is the author of Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse and Revival of Empires (2001), Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999), and Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine After Totalitarianism (1993)
Although there’s been a sharp reduction in trade and commercial ties with Russia and in Ukraine’s dependence on its neighbor, some key sectors still show levels of interaction that pose a threat to national security