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Foreign intervention would not play a significant role in Ukraine if the country was not so deeply divided, says Professor David Mandel (1/2)

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

More than 2,600 Ukrainians have been killed in fighting between pro-separatist groups and the Ukrainian government. This civil war is deeply affecting the civilian population, with a million Ukrainians fleeing their homes to become refugees in Russia or other cities within Ukraine. The crisis in Ukraine is center stage at this week’s NATO summit in the U.K.. President Obama has already called for increasing NATO support for the Ukrainian government, despite Ukraine not being a member of NATO. Though NATO claims it has no intention of incorporating the country as a member state, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has called for steps towards membership, while Russia says any move to enter into the alliance would undermine current peace efforts.

Meanwhile, a possible ceasefire still remains on the table after rebel leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to meet on September 5.

Now joining us to help us unpack this conflict is our guest, David Mandel. He joins us from Montreal, and he teaches political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal, and he specializes in countries of the former Soviet Union, and specifically labor.

Thank you so much for joining us, David.


DESVARIEUX: So, David, the mainstream press has made it really difficult to know the basic facts of what’s going on. I mean, a lot of the reports are just a compilation of, really, statements and public officials’ quotations from them and things of that nature, and there’s really know on-the-ground verification by journalists. So, essentially, here at The Real News, we’re trying to understand what’s happening here. Many U.S. and Western officials place Russian influence at the center of the conflict. And I want to point to a press conference that President Obama recently had. And this is what he had to say about Russia’s role.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia. They are armed by Russia. They are funded by Russia. Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. And the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see. This comes as Ukrainian forces are making progress against the separatists.


DESVARIEUX: So you just heard President Obama, David. Is Russia the main driver of the rebellion?

MANDEL: Well, there’s two competing narratives here. One is the narrative of the government in Kiev, which is firmly supported by U.S. and the NATO countries, that the only cause of this conflict is Russian intervention and Putin’s plan to restore the old Soviet Empire. And then there’s the Russian narrative which is shared by the militia in Eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, who claim it’s fundamentally a civil war. And, in fact, Russia basically denies its involvement, although there’s been some admission of volunteers fighting [incompr.]

DESVARIEUX: But what are you saying? What’s the truth in all this, then?

MANDEL: My strong sense is it is a civil war, basically, and there is–foreign intervention plays a significant role. But it couldn’t play any role if the country were not so deeply divided.

You had reaction of the Eastern and Southern provinces, which are mostly Russian-speaking, to the overthrow of the former government February 21. And immediately there were protests [incompr.] and there were occupations of the buildings. This was a copy of the tactics that had been used by the anti-government forces, the forces that had just overthrown the government, that are basically animated by a desire to get closer to the West and [incompr.] Russian nationalism.

DESVARIEUX: So what about Russia’s role in all of this? I mean, we talked about this a little bit before, but do you think that they are sort of causing the situation to escalate by annexing Crimea? And some are pointing to the fact that this anxiety that these NATO countries are having is somewhat justified. Would you agree with them?

MANDEL: Well, it’s true. The annexation of Crimea, first of all, gave a boost to anti-Russian nationalist forces in Ukraine, which bolstered the current government. And also it encouraged the forces in the militia and the forces in Eastern Ukraine that regarded the government in Kiev as illegitimate. So, I mean, in that sense it did add fire to the fuel to this conflict.

There’s also been–we know there’s been–put it this way: we don’t really know exactly how much Russia’s been aiding, but we know that at least Putin hasn’t closed the front, the borders, that, at the very least, volunteers, people have crossed the border to take part, and probably some arms have gone across. But, I mean, as far as arms are concerned, there’s tons of arms locally, both captured and within the arsenals, are scattered all around the Eastern part of Ukraine. So I think that’s a big issue.

There’s a claim now that there’s 1,000 Russian troops that have invaded, that have come across. I think the claim came–it was on August 25. That was really a response to the major defeats that the government forces had been suffering, and this was a kind of way of making it look a little bit better. But there’s actually no coordination of organized Russian forces. And, anyway, at least what they say is that a majority of the local militia in the East are local people. Their relationship to the rest of the population, I think, is complex. I think the rest of the population doesn’t support the government in Kiev, it views it as hostile. As far as supporting, I think by this time everyone’s tired. Everyone would like, actually, to return to peace, probably [incompr.] It’s not really clear.

But even closer than recently by reliable institutes in Kiev have had found out, as far as the government in Kiev is concerned, the bulk of the population in the East doesn’t regard this government is legitimate.

DESVARIEUX: But what about the role of NATO in all this, David? ‘Cause some would argue that NATO’s decision to provide additional soldiers, weapons, and security, it sort of justifies further Russian response and military preparations.

MANDEL: Yeah, NATO’s role has been a very pernicious role. But, of course, it goes back much farther. It goes back, first of all, to the European Union’s proposal of economic association. It’s basically forced Ukraine to choose between Russia and Europe, whereas the population is divided on this question. In fact, the majority in the surveys before the overthrow of the former government felt that the decision not to go ahead with this European Union, this European agreement, was the correct one, so that from Russia’s point of view–and I think there’s some basis to it–it looks like another case of regime change on the part of the U.S. and NATO, especially since there was an agreement to form a coalition government in the days leading up to February 21 and the overthrow of the security government. And Russia feels and I think that people in the Donbas feel that this agreement was basically thrown out. And so they formed a government which consisted mainly of–in fact, fully, of politicians that represent the Western provinces, the anti-Russian, Ukrainian-speaking, and pro-Western provinces. And there’s no representation at all for the rest of the east and [central provinces, (?)] which are [incompr.] which are close historically, economically, ethnically, family ties, to Russia.

The immediately [where in the east (?)] the opposition, which was unarmed at the beginning and which wasn’t demanding separation, and this opposition formed, the government in Kiev immediately called these guys–they’re terrorists and launched a so-called anti-terror–in really Orwellian language–antiterrorist operation. In this version has been fully backed by NATO and by the United States, so that today, when the government says, well, this war is not the Civil War, it’s a big patriotic war against Russian invaders, it’s supported by the West. So, I mean, all this destruction and bloodshed, I think that a lot of it should weigh on the conscience of NATO and the United States.

DESVARIEUX: So, for you, David, what is the solution beyond negotiations and a ceasefire? What is a long-term solution? Look, are we talking about federalization, autonomy, or something completely different?

MANDEL: I think, well, first of all, the Ukrainian political system is extremely centralized. It’s not a federal system like the United States or like in Canada, so that the governments that ran the different regions or provinces are all appointed and responsible to Kiev. Now, they’re not elected by the local population, so that federalization, it’s not a big deal. I mean, a lot of states have it and they function quite well. In a country with a population so divided and a state that’s so fragile–I mean, Ukraine didn’t exist as a state until 1991. So that, it makes a lot of sense. Coming from Canada, living in a French-speaking part of Canada, if Quebec, if it wasn’t this kind of asymmetrical federalism where Quebec actually has more power than other provinces, and quite a bit of power and central government, Quebec would have left many, many decades ago.

DESVARIEUX: So you’re saying essentially what we have in Canada we could see transported to Ukraine and have a sort of federalization system that way.

MANDEL: Well, that’s what would be logical. The question is–I mean, the nationalists and Ukraine say that this is just a step for Russian annexation. And even now with the ceasefire, there’s a lot of–the prime minister came out in opposition to the ceasefire. You know, I think that Poroshenko deserves some credit. At least he seems to have the welfare of the country in mind. But Yatsenyuk, the prime minister, who’s condemned it as a Russian plot, as a way to [incompr.] the conflict and for the East eventually to join Russia. I mean, he’s continuing this line–you know, it’s going to continue to lead Ukraine to disaster. I mean, economically, Ukraine is a complete disaster, a basket case. And even the IMF 15 odd 17 billion, that’s not going to be enough.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Well, let’s pause the conversation there, because in part two of the conversation, I want to talk about the economics, and specifically the socioeconomic problems and how that’s created division within Ukraine and the civil war that we’re seeing now.

So, David Mandel, joining us from Montreal.

Thank you so much for being with us.

MANDEL: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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David Mandel teaches political science at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He specializes in countries of former Soviet Union, especially labour. For many year has been involved in labour education in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, where he visiting this summer. David is the author of many articles and books, among which is Labour after Communism (Black Rose Press, Montreal, 2005).