From the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the Euromaidan Revolution in 2013-14, to the full-scale Russian invasion of 2022, Ukraine has been perpetually caught in a battle for self-determination while outside forces vie over its future. As Sean Guillory succinctly put it in a recent episode of the SRB podcast sponsored by Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the story of this war in many ways depends on who’s telling it and when they begin that story. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Dr. William Risch about where that story begins and what onlookers need to understand about the political and geopolitical history that paved the way to the horrific war in Ukraine, including the fallout from post-Soviet deindustrialization, the Euromaidan Revolution, and the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Dr. Risch is a professor of history at Georgia College who spent four years living in Ukraine and teaches on the history and politics of modern Eastern Europe. He is the author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv, and he is currently working on a new book entitled One Step from Madness: Power and Disillusionment in Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to the Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News. It’s so great to have you all with us. Today is Monday, Feb. 28, and the world is watching in horror as the full-scale Russian military invasion that began last week continues to wreak havoc on Ukraine and its people, as the post Cold War geopolitical arrangement is being redrawn in real time, and as humanity, once again, creeps closer to the possibility of nuclear catastrophe. News about the war in Ukraine is coming out by the minute and circumstances may very well have changed by the time this interview is published.
As always, we here at The Real News will do our best to bring our audiences up to date information and analysis of events as they unfold not just in video form but in the many text articles and podcasts we publish on our website on a weekly basis. And we will also be working hard to bring y’all the voices and context behind the headlines so that viewers and listeners can better navigate the fog of war, better understand how we got here, and to fight harder for peace.
In the coming days and weeks we will be recording a range of interviews with folks on the ground in Russia and Ukraine, specialists whose expertise can help explain the deeper context behind this horrific war, activists and organizers who are fighting for peace not only in Ukraine but in Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan, and beyond. And I want to be very clear that none of these interviews that we’ll be putting out is intended to be the single definitive take on any of the vital questions that we’ll be exploring and that they should be taken as part of a collective expanding effort to know what the hell is going on and to remember who and what we are fighting for.
If there are questions or viewpoints that you want us to discuss or are having trouble navigating yourselves, please reach out to us and we will work to address them in a way that’s informative, principled, honest, and usable.
And in today’s interview we’re going to be taking a closer look at the political and geopolitical history of Ukraine in recent decades: from the fall of the Soviet Union, to the Maidan Revolution, to the Russian annexation of Crimea, to the war that’s unfolding as we speak. As Sean Guillory succinctly put it in a recent episode of the SRB podcast, a great show that is sponsored by the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at the University of Pittsburgh that everyone should check out, the story of this war, in many ways, depends on who’s telling it and when they begin that story. And to help us begin to wade into that story in the Ukrainian context, I’m honored to be joined today by Dr. William Risch.
Dr. Risch is a Professor of History at Georgia College who spent four years living in Ukraine and teaches on the history and politics of modern Eastern Europe. He is the author of the book, The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv. And he is also currently working on a book entitled, One Step From Madness: Power and Disillusionment in Ukraine’s Euro-Maidan Revolution.
Dr. Risch, thank you so much for joining me today.
William Risch: It’s welcome to be here.
Maximillian Alvarez: Now, as I said, I was really struck by Sean Guillory’s point in his recent podcast episode on the Russian invasion of Ukraine because it seemed very apt, especially for those of us here in the United States who are consuming the coverage of this war, in a lot of ways, through the coverage that’s happening on mainstream media. And as we know in times of war like these the mainstream media tends to make very particular decisions about what story it tells, who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are, what context viewers do and don’t need to know, yada yada yada. And so, I was really eager to get you on to help us understand not just what’s happening right now, but what led us to this war that many imagined would never actually happen, including many in Russia and the US and Ukraine.
So I first wanted to ask you that question that Sean Guillory asked in his podcast, which is, for folks who are watching these events unfold right now, where do you think we need to sort of start the timeline to better understand the path that led us to this horrific bloodshed in Ukraine?
William Risch: I would have to say, Max, that we need to start probably in 1991. I can remember as an undergraduate being assigned media articles to read, and one was about Gorbachev and the dilemmas he faced with the Soviet empire. And the article concluded with the warning that any empires that fall apart, such as those that fell apart during World War I, will not herald better times, but more problems, more crises that the world will have to deal with. And unfortunately, that is where we are 30 years later. The problems of an empire disintegrating that have led to these regional conflicts, which unfortunately have escalated in the case of Ukraine to the point where the world is literally on the brink of a nuclear war, possibly, at this point during our broadcast.
I think that for many, perhaps Ukraine’s independence was unexpected. And maybe it was. But the truth is that late socialism and the way the Soviet Union was going at the time, independence, national independence, looked like a better option because the Soviet system seemed to be not delivering on the goods for people, seemed to be suppressing freedom of speech, seemed to be holding up, lying about the truth of what had happened in the past. And much of that became quite poignant in the case of Ukraine because we have the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, which some would argue compelled Mikhail Gorbachev to begin the process of opening up, glasnost, openness, freedom of speech and so on. And so we do see a state that had been together, well, at least since 1945, at least since the end of World War II. A state that, while Soviet was Ukrainian, while it had very different regions with different historical experiences, those regions all, in some way, came to identify with a Soviet Ukrainian state. And an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians voted for independence, they ratified the Declaration of Independence in a referendum on Dec. 1, 1991.
What did independence mean? It meant, hopefully, a better future for Ukraine, and many became disillusioned in the 1990s. We see high inflation, we see massive unemployment, we see massive dislocation economically. And really, there were regions that suffered greatly. The Soviet rust belt, as we would call them, like in the Donbas region. And in Crimea there were close historical ties to Russia, at least amongst part of the population. And there were calls for referendums even then in the early 1990s. There was a crisis over Crimea that reached a head probably in 1993 and really was settled in the mid-1990s with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kuchma president of Ukraine.
In the Donbas region in 1994 there were attempts at holding referendums on the future of the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. And so those issues were settled by Ukraine’s political elite which itself became so mired in corruption as the country privatized the economy and joined the world economy. And these elites became so corrupt and we see a system that was very typical of other Soviet republics, former Soviet republics as well: corrupt police, corrupt court system and so on. And so there was great disillusionment and there were some people that really did see the Ukrainian state as a state run by thieves. And so those grievances were there at the same time that we see a Ukrainian state emerge with its educational system that stressed Ukrainian patriotism, a state that encouraged a historical memory in favor of Ukrainian independence, and people who learn the Ukrainian language in school, higher education, and who felt like they were part of a Ukrainian state. And the strange dynamic that we see, well, no longer seems so strange anymore, the Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriot.
And so those things happened. And there were great grievances towards Ukraine because Ukraine de-industrialized over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. And what we see are millions of people living abroad and working abroad, many of them in Europe itself. There was a sense for many Ukrainians that joining the European Union would lead to a better way of life and maybe they could fight the corruption that was there at home. The problem was that you had so many regions that were economically dependent on Russia and for them the European Union was not so appealing. And then we do have these revolutions, the Orange Revolution of 2004, which was a nonviolent revolution, very brief, really, over a contested election where there had been brazen falsification of the election results. And we see coming to power in a narrow vote, something like 52% versus around 48%, Viktor Yushchenko, a president who was determined to carry out the European choice for Ukraine. And then we have Viktor Yanukovych who capitalizes on the weaknesses of Yushchenko, comes to identify, we could say, with radical nationalism, for some people with a sense of Ukrainian identity that’s too focused on language and culture and not citizenship and so on.
And Yanukovych does come to power in the next presidential elections in 2010. And Yanukovych, being from the Donbas region, he’s from that Russian-speaking population there that identify themselves as Ukrainian citizens, but also advocate closer relations with Russia. And Viktor Yanukovych and his political party, the Party of Regions, they more or less run the country from 2010 until 2014. And they go in-between just like every other president of Ukraine, by that point in time there were four of them including Yanukovych, who played this game between Russia and the West, Russia and Europe, Russia and NATO, Russia and the United States. And Ukraine was just trying to be itself, they called it a multi-vector foreign policy, and please everybody in order to benefit Ukrainians. Ultimately, those who benefited were the political leads who became increasingly corrupt who relied on theft, embezzlement and so on.
The Orange Revolution did not solve that problem of corruption. Corruption continued to fester. Under Yanukovych it got probably even worse because with Yanukovych his whole family became overnight billionaires. And so the corruption hit an apogee that, well, in many ways sparked this Euro-Maidan Revolution that I’m trying to write a book about. That happens in November 2013. Starts out peacefully, it was a legitimate protest, involved millions of people. At one point, though, it did get violent, particularly in late January 2014. Some of that was sparked by Yanukovych himself, the Party of Regions and their allies, the Communist Party of Ukraine, decided to crack down on all protests and enact these laws that would’ve made protests… Extremely difficult, let’s put it that way. And that sparked violence, it sparked uprisings all over Central and Western Ukraine where Euro-Maidan protesters seized control of administrative buildings.
There was a brief truce by early February 2014 and then everything fell apart. Everything blew up on Feb. 18, 2014, when the opposition, the Euro-Maidan leaders, the political leaders of the Euro-Maidan, tried to bring about a compromise and return to a constitution that narrowed the powers of the president. That was amongst the abuses of power committed by Yanukovych. He basically annulled the previous constitution that provided for a powerful parliament and a weak presidency. He reversed it and made the presidency powerful again. So with that we see the violent overthrow of the Yanukovych regime and the uprisings are renewed in Central and Western Ukraine, making that possible. We see the circulation of guns. We see the use of guns on the Maidan, the main square in Kyiv, where that revolution took place, where it started. And then we see all these people who, influenced by, admittedly, rumors, Russian media, pro-Yanukovych media, pro-Yanukovych political elites locally, but also just events on the ground as they really happened.
They were afraid of radical nationals coming to their towns. And so we do see counterprotests that were genuine, too. Those were hijacked by Russian nationalists, those were hijacked by people with connections to Russia. And at that point in time, well, we’ve got a separatist movement that breaks out in the Donbas region. We see before that, of course, Crimea, where there was a separatist movement that becomes activated, connected with the Russian Black Sea Fleet, with the Russian consulate there in Crimea, and so on. And so we get separatism. It didn’t really take off, though, as Russia’s leaders had expected. Actually, the Russian Spring, as they called it, failed, just like, as I will argue, the Euro-Maidan failed. These were revolutions that were supposed to be about asserting the power of the people but then you do have militants, armed militants, and politicians taking advantage of these protests, leading them in directions that, well, were very regrettable, let’s put it that way.
And in the case of the Russian Spring, it really failed in Ukraine’s South. Some of it ended violently such as in Odesa in May 2014, the beginning of that month. So what do we get? We get this war in the Donbas which festers. The Ukrainians were absolutely convinced that they would win through military means. President Poroshenko was convinced of that. He was elected as president in May 2014. And I remember because I worked for a media organization, an organization that was trying to get the news out from Kyiv. And one friend said – I have a friend in the presidential administration. I was very worried in late July 2014 about war coming to Kyiv – And he told me, don’t worry about it. I know people in the presidential administration, this Donbas crisis is going to end soon. So I guess they thought the military would crush it. But the Russians sent in their military and crushed the Ukrainian military and to compel Ukraine to sign two truce agreements in Minsk. The first being, if I’m not mistaken, Sept. 5, 2014. The second being either the 14th or the 15th of February, 2015.
And then you do have this festering war that goes on. I don’t know if this helps to answer the question that you had, Max, but this is where we get to. This is where we get to a point where Putin had hoped to return Ukraine to the Russian fold through these uprisings in the spring of 2014. They didn’t work out. And then there’s this military confrontation that forces the Ukrainians to back off. But ultimately the Ukrainian state survives and it becomes more connected to the West than before because Ukrainians increasingly see that the European Union and NATO are the best way to protect Ukrainians because of what Russia was doing in Donbas and Crimea.
It’s a very complicated story with Crimea and Donbas. But the problem is then these perceptions become reality. And for them, the United States and even Georgia, the Republic, anybody that came from there as advisors from Georgia or from the United States, there was Natalie Jaresko, who worked as finance minister at one point. She was from the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States, and they placed a lot of hope in the West. Ukraine went through a whole bunch of neoliberal reforms that required a lot of sacrifices from people. And there have been many Ukrainians, millions, going abroad to work. The population correspondingly has gone down. They say maybe it’s 37 million at this point. The Donbas, for its part, has become a wasteland because nobody wants it, not Russia and not Ukraine. Well, at least the Russian-occupied Donbas, neither side wants it. At this point, Russia’s acknowledged the independence of these separatist republics but they haven’t really put a whole lot of investment into that region. In that region we’ve seen the death of metallurgy, mining, and all these other industries, although some coal does come from the region still. It’s still being extracted.
So I think at this point, where do we get this war? I think probably Putin was getting increasingly irritated with the Ukrainians for not implementing the Minsk Accords, these truce agreements that had been made in Minsk, because those agreements did provide broad autonomy to the Donbas and they would’ve allowed for the Donbas to be returned to Ukraine. But there were questions about when would the Russian forces be withdrawn? When would the pro-Russian militants be withdrawn? And those were very large sticking points, let’s put it that way. And there was a constituency, and there still is a constituency, that is dead set against implementing the Accords, the Minsk Accords. And these people, actually, they lost in the presidential elections of 2019. Ukrainians overwhelmingly rejected the Euro-Maidan government of Petro Poroshenko, who was elected as president in 2014.
They threw him out of office. Zelenskyy won with 72% of the vote. Zelenskyy won with 72% of the vote. Poroshenko only had 25%. If you look at parliamentary elections, a new party formed by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Servant of the People Party wins something like 54% of the vote. Second place is a pro-Russian party called Opposition Bloc for Life. Those are politicians who were affiliated largely with Yanukovych, although there were some others too. And then you have Petro Poroshenko’s party which becomes this European Solidarity Party. They only get 8% of the vote, eight. So you do have a lot of people who want to make peace with Russia and bring back Donbas. But the problem was, this just didn’t work out with Minsk. At the same time, we see Zelenskyy as his popularity sags because Zelenskyy had no political experience before he became president.
He was just a comedian. He’s a very good speech writer and a great writer and so on, produces great content for television. But he wasn’t ready for this office and he’s alienated several people. In his attempts to remove the power of the oligarchs, he’s alienated other oligarchs including those connected with Petro Poroshenko, those political forces connected with Poroshenko, but also others connected with the Opposition Bloc for Life party, the pro-Russian party. So he’s alienated those two sides – On the eve of this war, by the way. Russia, by the way, is also very upset that this pro-Russian party, Opposition Bloc for Life, which got second place in the 2019 election, second place. Their media was shut down by Zelenskyy, a variety of television programs. And those programs were shut down. One of the oligarchs connected with that political party, he was put under police investigation. There was an oligarch connected with them in Russia, and he was banned. He’s under investigation. There have been these criminal investigations going on for some time.
So, in some ways, maybe Putin was seeing that this suppression of pro-Russian forces gave him legitimacy. It gave his position legitimacy, that Russia could invade and these pro-Russian forces could be revived and used to bring about a more pro-Russian Ukraine. The problem is that I think these forces have dissipated with all of what is going on with the bombings and the shellings, the air raids, the attacks on several cities, it’s quite overwhelming. So I don’t know what’s going to come of this. And now the fact that Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons, it’s just that I don’t think that the pro-Russian politicians are going to say a single thing for now.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. It’s incredibly anxiety-producing for that very reason. We don’t know where this is going to go. I think many of us are realizing what was always there hidden in plain sight, that we’re talking about forces involved here that control the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons and that we were, in fact, always close to that precipice of nuclear war, we had just gotten so used to that and accepted it as a reality that now we can’t really comprehend the fact that this is where we are. And I think that your points give incredibly valuable and a background context for what people are watching. Because in that regard, that’s really what we’re trying to do here at The Real News is, we’re not a breaking news network. We don’t have people on the ground in Ukraine. And even a lot of media outlets with far more resources are having trouble vetting sources and knowing exactly what’s going on.
The fog of war is very much upon us. And so at the same time, we’re seeing, just like we did after 9/11 here in the United States, when that sort of war machine kicks into gear and the media arm of that really starts, goes to wall to wall coverage about war, everyone kind of reverts to this sort of state of needing to see things in very black and white terms, needing to know who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, who do we support, who tells us what to do. And so we think it’s really important to bring on specialists like yourself who can help us sort of understand the deeper context here and the history that led us to this point.
And in that sense, I almost wanted to pick up on a couple of details that you mentioned that I know Real News viewers have questions about because I think that you gave us a really great base for understanding the internal political context of Ukraine over the past couple of decades. And then you also gestured to the interceding forces from Russia, and even the US and NATO, where Ukraine is this horribly caught in the middle state that is having very powerful actors on each side really try to determine what the fate of the Ukrainian state will be.
So I wanted to ask if, given your research and your expertise, if you could just say a little more about that Russian claim to those separatist regions in Ukraine, because I know that this is obviously a big part of Putin’s message within Russia. He even gestured back to Lenin in his speech to the Russian people, saying that it was a mistake to allow Ukraine to be independent in the first place. So that sort of deeper ethnic connection is clearly playing a pivotal role here. And I was wondering if you could just explain that dynamic a little bit more for viewers here in North America who probably just learned about it very recently.
William Risch: Yes. Well, I would refer to… There seem to be a number of historians who will tell you, such as Terry Martin at Harvard University, that Ukrainians as a state, as a nation state that became a part of Bolshevik policy under Lenin and others, including Stalin. Stalin, who was the commissar of nationalities, who was in charge of the nationalities question, who worked out the theories about nationhood. And by the way I also recommend Ronald Grigor Suny who’s written a wonderful biography of Stalin. And then Stephen Kotkin has also written this trilogy on Stalin that I’ve had no time to read, unfortunately. But you will see that Stalin understood and Lenin understood, the Bolsheviks understood at a certain point that in order to achieve the liberation of the people from class oppression, in order for the workers truly to be liberated and to take power and to end class exploitation, they had to deal with the national exploitation, that class exploitation and national exploitation went hand in hand.
And that the Russian empire of the 19th century was an empire that discriminated against non-Russians. And Stalin was aware of this and he knew that the nation mattered. When it came to Riga, which is now the capital of Latvia, he talked about this in his 1890s, I think at the end of the 1890s, he had written about this about how overnight – Well, not overnight, but over the years Riga became a Latvian-speaking city. It used to be German. Then it became Latvian. He was aware of the fact that nations mattered. If you want to be truly honest, Putin is a 19th century Russian imperialist. He is no Bolshevik. He is not a communist. Somebody at an Atlanta demonstration for Ukraine had a sign up saying that Putin was a communist. And I just was trying to be nice and not say a word, but it’s like, no.
I mean, the Bolsheviks, the Soviet leaders, understood the nationalities question had to be dealt with. And it was also an effective way to spread the revolution westward. How best to undermine Poland and turn it to the communist fold? You appeal to its Ukrainian minority which made up a third of the population in the lands of Galicia. That became part of this region that I studied, actually, for my first book. And so it was very important. Central Asia, the Caucasus Mountains region, those were strategically important areas where appealing to the nations of those parts of the Russian empire were very important if they wanted to spread the revolution south into the Middle East.
So this idea that it’s just an artificial creation, I think that actually the Bolsheviks were better at foreign policy than Putin is, really, because they understood that class and nation were sort of intertwined. The problem is that you have these other competing nationalisms, integral Ukrainian nationalism, for instance, that comes from central Europe, from interwar Poland, from Austria. By that time, 1929, an integral Ukrainian nationalism is for overthrowing the communists. And by the time we get to 1939 they’re even playing around with the idea of cleansing the Ukrainian lands of Poles, Jews, and Russians. Poles, Jews, and Russians, and other traitors to the nation.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well that’s a big part of what we’re watching right now, is that this is what Putin himself has been saying. That essentially, this is a liberational kind of war where Ukrainians are being liberated from Nazi forces in Ukraine where more ethnically Russian-identifying or Russian-sympathetic people in the Eastern part of the country are essentially being saved from this sort of oppressive regime within Ukraine, to say nothing of all the fears about Western US-led NATO expansion, so on and so forth. So is that the kind of roots of that issue that you’re talking about that go much deeper than the past few years?
William Risch: Yes. And the problem is that, ironically, the language question was not really up there on the agenda for either of these two revolutions in Ukraine, but then when the Russian interference started and they talked about Russian speakers being under threat… Well, I should back up a little bit. There was a radical nationalist party in Parliament at the time that the Yanukovych regime was overthrown. And they were part of this revolution, they were known as the Svoboda party, the Freedom party whose leader had gotten into big trouble in 2004 for saying things about Jews and Russians and so on. And that political party was pushing for abolishing, repealing this language law that allowed for regions of Ukraine to determine their own local administrative language, essentially. And so this allowed Russians, for instance, in regional governments, in Donbas region, Kherson region, and elsewhere to use the Russian language when it came to state business. And they repealed that, and that sparked hysteria in Crimea and Donbas.
And then the interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, he vetoed the law, he vetoed the repeal. He vetoed the repeal and said, we’ll work out the language question later. And they never really worked out the language question until this war broke out in Donbas. And then over the years that followed, there were people that said, hey, look, if we want to stop Russian aggression, if we want to stop separatism, we have to encourage the development of the Ukrainian language and make it the state language in the sense that we’re not going to go back to the regional language law – I’ll call it that – From 2012, that we have to have more Ukrainian in the school system and in higher education and in broadcasting and so on. And so this whole lobby for the Ukrainian language, which has now essentially made Ukrainian media Ukrainian speaking, this lobby legitimated its claims in the Russian aggression while the Russian aggression legitimated its aggression by saying, we’re protecting Russian speakers.
So it becomes this horrible vicious cycle, it becomes so intertwined and quite ugly, really. There are not, perhaps, representative voices saying this, but I just remember somebody on the social networks referring to linguistic separatists, and I was aghast because if you go and look at the people that were fighting separatists in Donbas, a lot of those guys are Russian speakers. Women too, were Russian speakers, so it’s completely absurd, of course. And you get it to these controversial decommunization laws of 2015 that were passed by Parliament and signed by the president which essentially set up a certain canon of national heroes, national heroes that are to be respected and if there are any defamatory or slanderous things said about them in the press or in, well, primarily in the press, in the public sphere, that there could be some criminal liability for that although they never really stated it.
And yes, they outlawed these communist symbols in public life and so you could get five years in the slammer for displaying the Soviet flag publicly, those kinds of things. And they were done in the name of fighting separatism. So it’s like the separatists really just made the Ukrainian nationalism worse, not better. And it’s very sad because at the initial start when the Yanukovych regime fell and so many people died, Russian speakers too, there were people from all parts of Ukraine saying, let’s not discriminate against the Russian language, this is bad. These people didn’t die to just create more conflict in this country. But it was so shortly lived because then came the Crimea crisis and that whole effort to get along just collapsed. Too many geopolitical forces just got in the way.
You talked about geopolitical forces, Max. I’ll just never forget being on Lenin Square in Donetsk, my last day or so. And this was in late January, mid-January 2014. And I spoke with some ordinary worker who was fixing the fountains, or they were renovating the fountains on Lenin Square. And he told me that the leaders of Ukraine’s opposition, those people that were leading the Maidan, amongst the politicians that were leading the Maidan, he said, those people aren’t terribly attractive. I’m not drawn to their speeches at all. And then when I asked him about what he wanted for the future of this country, he said, the problem is that there are different powers that want to tear Ukraine apart and we’re not going to be able to decide. Someone else will decide. Alas, that often seems to be the case.
I just don’t know what’s going to happen. Will these partisans that are forming in Kyiv, will they be able to determine their own fate? I would hope so. I just don’t know where the future lies with this country. Just the hysteria over the possible invasion wrecked the Ukrainian economy and President Zelenskyy was very upset with this and so were Ukrainians themselves, saying that there was too much alarmism coming from Washington. And now look, the invasion is in full swing.
Maximillian Alvarez: I think there are many things that have really broken my heart and, I imagine, the hearts of many of our Real News viewers and listeners, but I think that lead up, especially now that the invasion has begun, thinking back to those cries from Ukrainian officials and citizens saying, please stop making this worse. We don’t need to go into war. You’re pushing us, basically, to the precipice of war that we don’t want. And now we’re here and, of course, the people of Ukraine are suffering immeasurably. There’s a refugee crisis. Civilians are dying. Buildings, apartment buildings, are being bombed. It’s really an awful, terrible situation that should remind all of us, especially here in the US, in the heart of empire, what the reality of war is.
It should not be something that we cheer and champion unless it is an absolute last resort. And that is not the case here, and we’re not the ones who are suffering from that. We are watching videos every day of the people who are suffering the worst of that. And I could go on for a million years about that. But I’m so grateful to have you for this time. And I wanted to kind of pick up on that final point by way of rounding us out before you go to your next class . You’re working on this book on the Euro-Maidan Revolution. And I guess I wanted to ask, how much of that story is the story of non-Ukrainian forces? There are many in the US who would call it, essentially, a US coup in Ukraine. And so I was wondering if you could address that side of things, the US-NATO side of things, to kind of flesh out what you’ve been saying so eloquently about the seam within Ukraine and also the Russian side of that.
William Risch: Yeah. I think one of the biggest problems is that that revolution, whether or not people wanted it, it became identified with a geopolitical choice when, in fact, so many that showed up at the Maidan initially, it was about the regime that was so corrupt. And so you do see these appeals to the West, these appeals to Europe and the European Union to impose sanctions on the Yanukovych regime and so on. You have these appeals to the United States. You have people activating protest movements abroad to support the Euro-Maidan and you have government officials showing up there at the Maidan itself saying we will support you to the end, including the late John McCain, senator from Arizona, and Chris Murphy, the senator from Connecticut. And others. There were so many politicians that showed up from the European Union on the Maidan. And I have to say one of the most unfortunate speeches I remember as I went through some of this was by Mikheil Saakashvili. Dec. 6, 2013, he said that the Maidan would be the end of Putin’s Russia.
That was the fantasy enjoyed by some, that Ukraine would be first and Russia would be next. And then you wonder why Putin was so paranoid. And to be perfectly honest, as a side note, I don’t think that Putin was terribly disturbed by this because the Maidan and ending so violently scared a lot of people. But anyway, I just find it so ironic because there were all these politicians, they tried to manage this crisis in Ukraine in early 2014. And that’s where you get Victoria Nuland, that major figure for your Asian Affairs at the Department of State and the ambassador of Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, and there’s that leaked phone conversation. And while their plans for an interim government for Ukraine were realized, actually the people that they proposed for the government refused the jobs and that’s why the confrontation between opposition and Yanukovych continued. Still, the idea that they would discuss over the phone the fate of a Ukrainian government, I just found very… It bothered me then. And then what really bothered me was then seeing, in Crimea, Russian politicians coming to Sevastopol to express solidarity with the Crimeans. Russian politicians who basically said, we’ll stand with you all the way to the end.
And to be honest, it’s a very complicated story, but you do have, for instance, the Donbas region and Crimea, where there were pro-Russian organizations supported by the Kremlin, supported by oligarchs close to Putin, supported by the institute for the study of CIS countries. The CIS is the Commonwealth of Independent States that was formed after the Soviet Union and doesn’t really exist anymore, I guess. But you did have those influences from the East as well as influences from the West. I mean, I was part of the civic education program, that’s where I got my job in Lviv teaching East European history there, Russian and East European history, for two years. And the CDP, which is financed by the Open Society Institute which is run by George Soros. Yes, we were there educating people.
One of the students in one of our student debates was amongst those killed on the Maidan on Feb. 20. And you just sort of wonder, and it’s just… Those outside influences are there. They’re there, they’re probably making things worse, of course. But alas, Ukraine was very much globally connected. This is the problem with dealing with a revolution in the 21st century. And you had Facebook, you had Twitter, you had Instagram, you had all these connections, you had Skype, YouTube, the whole deal. So it was very international as a political event at least at one point in time. And you did have people that were meddling around, perhaps. In that sense they thought that they were helping. And frankly, the people they were working with probably thought that they were helping, so this is the problem is that you do have these very different competing memories of what happened.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, all the more reason to read your book when it comes out. Dr. William Risch, professor of History at Georgia College, who spent years living in Ukraine and teaches on the history and politics of modern Eastern Europe. He’s the author of the book, The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv. And he is currently working on a book entitled One Step from Madness: Power and Disillusionment in Ukraine’s Euro-Maidan Revolution.
Dr. Risch, thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your insight.
William Risch: Thank you. It was a pleasure being here.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.