Panel Discusses Russia, Ukraine, and the Crimean Crisis

Watch the video of the event here

In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the Jordan Center welcomed several distinguished guests to discuss the events at Maidan, Russia’s involvement in the Crimean referendum for independence, and the ensuing international relations debacle between Russia, the United States, and Europe.

Director of the Jordan Center Yanni Kotsonis introduced the panel on Wednesday, March 11th, to a packed room, and gave special thanks to “special surprise” guest, dissident writer and political activist Evgeny Troitsky. “Crimea is a Ukrainian issue,” Kotsonis said. “But there’s also the question of Russia.”

Kotsonis explained that he’s been saddened by the recent turn of events, particularly in regards to the Western media’s devolution towards Cold War commonplaces. “I find myself in a time warp,” he said. “It’s as if I’m in 1985.” The real consequences of the media’s assertion of East versus West, and Russia as the mortal enemy of the United States, among other paradigms, is a loss of constructive conversation about the ensuing events. Kotsonis said that the events and media perspective on both ends, fostered a need for “a conversation about Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine.”

Troitsky agreed, “I find myself quite depressed with what’s going [on].” But, he said, he maintains the belief that Ukraine is on the right path. “The tunnel is long, but I do believe there is a light at the end,” he said. “The Ukrainians do deserve a better life. They have shown real miracles of strength and bravery at Maidan.”

He went on to describe his experience at Maidan in mid-December of last year, immediately after the violent crackdown of November 30th. Troitsky said that as a Russian citizen he was lucky to have been there. He made a short speech followed by a DJ set performed in front of a crowd of an estimated 300,000 people. “For me, it was the experience of a lifetime,” Troitsky said. “I was tremendously impressed by what I saw there.”

Troitsky compared the scene at Maidan to the popular uprisings of 2012 in Russia. “Protesting Russians– they never stay there. Whereas the Ukrainians, they really occupied Maidan.” He praised the atmosphere as one of self-conscious non-violence. Even the businesses around Independence Square, those which remained open during the protests, helped the resistance out in any way they could. “They didn’t give them foie-gras, but they let them use the bathrooms,” he laughed.

As for the rhetoric regarding the ultra-right leaning ideology of the protest movement, Troitsky denied that this was an accurate representation of Maidan. “There were people of all kinds– from babushkas to hipsters,” he said. “They all came to Maidan as if it was their night time job.” Troitsky said he wasn’t sure how accurate American media representation of the protests in Kiev were, but, he said, “in Russian media it was portrayed as 99 percent certified lies.” Extremists represented only a “minimal minority” of the people at Madian. Troitsky went as far to say that he witnessed absolutely no anti-Russian sentiment at the protests. But, he admitted, a lot has changed since he was there last year.

Kotsonis wondered, then, “So who did they hate? Here in the United States it was represented as an anti-Russian protest.”

Troitsky explained how the aims of the protest evolved over time. At first it was European accession, “then the European agenda was overshadowed by anti-Yanukovych” sentiments. People became more concerned with the “insanely corrupt and cynical regime of Yanukovych.” He said that Ukrainians were united on this sentiment. Everyone, including residents of Crimea, “they all hate him, for obvious reasons.

Another point driven home by Troitsky was the lack of clear leadership at Maidan. He said that the people who have been portrayed as leaders of the protest movement were, in fact, given mandates by Maidan. “It was power to the people in its purest and most effective form.”

“I envy Ukrainians so much,” he said. “I can’t imagine this happening in Russia.”

As for Russia’s involvement in the ensuing dispute over Crimea, Troitsky said that he foresees “far more catastrophic consequences” for his native country. He described Russia as the “Lone Ranger,” in the larger geopolitical context. “I, for one, am not happy about being a citizen of a rogue state, a pariah state,” he said.

Joshua Tucker, professor at NYU’s Department of Politics, continued discussion of the contemporary facets of the Crimean annexation crisis. Tucker pointed to four major lines of thinking in his presentation– what he called “the puzzle,” Putin’s motivations, the bigger picture, and finally what particular outcomes could mean for nuclear non-proliferation.

“A lot of people didn’t think this would happen, including myself,” Tucker admitted. Russia has a lot to lose in supporting Crimean secession. He argued that in taking out the most pro-Russian region of the country, in addition to alienating the rest of the Ukraine, the Kremlin is contributing further to their own international isolation by eliminating their support base in Ukraine. “In a globalized world, there are serious consequences for this,” Tucker said.

He also pointed to the already apparent economic consequences for Russia’s support of Crimean annexation. The cost of supporting Crimea would significantly impact Russian GDP. “The Russian stock market it tanking again,” Tucker said. “It’s falling today.” Sanctions, and trade issues could also result from these developments, in addition to the high cost of military mobilization and an extended militarization of Crimea and the border.

However, Tucker noted, that despite these almost certain consequences, “we know Putin has increased his popularity at home.” This phenomenon is known as the “rally around the flag effect.” But Tucker voiced doubt about how long this could last. “How would [Russians] feel about their young men being mobilized to fight Ukrainians?”

Tucker agreed with Kotsonis in that he was also at a loss for what exactly was driving Russia to annex Crimea. Instead of guessing the best possible motivation, Tucker listed five potential calculations.

Firstly, it’s possible that Putin could be legitimately concerned about protecting Russians abroad. Russia’s actions could also be motivated by a fear of losing the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, and access to the warm water port where it’s located. A third explanation, which Tucker described as one that’s “getting an awful lot of play in Western media,” is the consolidation of a “greater Russia.” According to this narrative, Tucker explained, “Putin sees it as his place in history to restore Russia to its former Imperial greatness.”

Tucker also proposed an explanation which understands Russia’s motivations as being less about Crimea, and more about the Ukrainian Revolution, which represented “a threat to the Russian model of ‘sovereign democracy.’”

A final, but somewhat less likely explanation, could have to with Russia wanting to annex Eastern Ukraine as a whole, as a means of expanding business opportunities for the economic elite, what Tucker called, “the selectorate.”

Tucker noted that what was most important to consider in the case of Crimea, however, is whether or not Russia is acting out of a position of weakness, or one of strength. Western media accounts for both of these narratives, depending upon who you’re reading.

One final issue Tucker noted, and one he pointed out has rarely been discussed in the context of Crimea is “the future of nuclear non-proliferation.” Tucker reminded the panel of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons stock in exchange for a guarantee of sovereignty by Britain, the United States, and Russia. Given the loss of territorial integrity in the situation of Crimea and the breaking of the treaty, Tucker wondered whether other nations, Iran in particular, will be more considerably more reluctant to give up nuclear weapons in the future. “It seems like there’s a major credibility issues at stake here,” Tucker said.

Kotsonis introduced Professor of Russian Literature at NYU Eliot Borenstein as an expert on Russian pop culture and contemporary literature, from which Borenstein segued into an image he explained had been stuck in his head since the Crimean crisis erupted. Borenstein said the Russian “pornographic connection” here is a spread he’d seen of a woman in a skimpy version of military garb, and below her a poem– “the fleet is ours, and Crimea will be ours.”

Borenstein also acknowledged a growing sense of being in a “time warp,” and said his contribution to the discussion would focus on “how people are talking about” the Crimean debacle.

He noted that the media was disseminating the same type of rhetoric that was used to explain the dissolution of Yugoslavia. “The way it was talked about, was that Serbs weren’t fighting Croats, they were fighting Ustaše,” he said. “And the Croats were fighting Chetniks.” This narrative, he explained, stemmed from “a not just terrible but pernicious,” book by Robert Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts— which famously attributed the violent wars of secession in the early 90s to so-called ancient hatreds and historical inevitability.

Borenstein explained that Kaplan’s book took the wartime propaganda “at face value,” and in doing so, gave the disinformation credibility. Propaganda has also been adopted by both American and Russian journalists in the situation of Ukraine. The portrayal of Maidan as a neo-Nazi, ultra-nationalist coup is obviously misleading, but touted as reality by Russian media. He also noted the other extreme, in which U.S. media outlets are “only able to understand Putin and Russia in terms of the Soviet Union,” and still understand the world within Cold War dichotomies. Borenstein described this as a “sad narrative trap, that people don’t seem to be particularly interested in getting out of.”

Anne Lounsbery, Professor of Russian Literature at NYU and expert on 19th-century Russian literature, joked — “Why am I on this panel?” She explained that, having written a book on Gogol, she had a particularly close connection to the current Ukrainian crisis.

Lounsbery explained that she was also invested in the Ukrainian crisis because of her focus on narratives, and in this case — “by and large, they have been not very helpful.” For once, she said, she found historical narratives inadequate in explaining or making sense of the events which have unfolded in Ukraine and Russia over the past several months. However, she said that Maidan and the Crimean crisis have “restored her belief in surprise,” as each competing, but supposedly inevitable historical narrative at play in this situation has proven to be wrong.

Nikolai Gogol, a native Ukrainian speaker, born in Ukraine, and by all measures was interested in Ukrainian culture and presented himself as such, nevertheless took the path of least resistance in pursuit of becoming a successful author in Imperial Russia, and moved to Saint Petersburg, where he wrote in Russian, and immersed himself in Russian institutions. Lounsbery said that, like Gogol, Ukraine is “a hybrid place” and “if it’s going to have a good future, it’s got to take that hybridity into account.”

Questions then moved to the audience. One woman wondered if what’s happening in Ukraine maps onto the street demonstrations in Venezuela. “Is the 21st-century, the century of the civil society?” she asked.

Joshua Tucker responded that we’ve entered an era of transformation in the ways in which people organize and protest– “what I call web 2.0.” He explained that one dramatic break with what we’ve understood as revolution in the past is that protests we see now have been largely leaderless. He also said that more and more we’re seeing “an underlying resentment” in societies across the globe stemming from corruption. “We are living in a world where it’s much easier to get people to come onto the streets,” he said.

Lounsbery wondered if people are mobilized in this way, are they just as willing to die. Tucker responded, “This is not a ‘slacktivism’ story.” Maidan being a prime example. He said that 40 percent of people at the protests in Kiev said they had come there because a friend or family member had invited them to do so on a social network.

Another audience member, who had recently been in Moscow, spoke of seeing posters in the subways which clearly showed, “a re-Sovietization of the discourse” in its references to fascists. She wondered how effective these kind of images were.

Tucker responded that one was to do measure this, is to survey how often these messages are being repeated in social media. Lounsbery raised serious doubts about how effective extremist messages were in cases like this.

Kotsonis thanked the panel members and visitors of the Jordan Center for their attendance.

update: Since the conference, Russia has moved to annex Crimea. The panel discussion was held before the referendum for secession, and at the time of this panel, Russia had only declared its support for Crimean secession.