Western powers fuel the Ukrainian conflict — and wider tensions with Russia — by treating Ukraine as a strategic prize, says Nicolai Petro, Silvia-Chandley professor of Peace Studies and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island
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AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump is in Hamburg for the G20 summit, where he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time. At a speech in Poland ahead of their sit down, Trump sent a message to Russia. DONALD TRUMP: We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran. And to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself. AARON MATÉ: The meeting comes at a time of high U.S.-Russia tensions, from Russia’s borders to Syria. The U.S. recently announced new sanctions targeting Russia, prompting the Kremlin to cancel talks. NATO continues to vow it’s prepared to confront what it calls “The Russian Threat.” Meanwhile, a recent Pentagon intelligence report found that Russia believes the U.S. wants to topple its government. The Defense Intelligence Agency said, “The Kremlin is convinced the U.S. is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia.” The report cites the events in Ukraine, where the U.S. helped oust a pro-Russian president in 2014. Despite all these issues, much attention remains focused on whether Trump will confront Putin over Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election. I’m joined now by Nicolai Petro, Silvia-Chandley professor of peace studies and nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island. He’s editor of the new book, Ukraine in Crisis. He joins us from Odessa, Ukraine. Professor Petro, welcome. NICOLAI PETRO: Hello. AARON MATÉ: Thanks for joining us. I guess we should start with Trump’s speech today, singling out Russia for what he called destabilizing Ukraine. Can you respond to that? NICOLAI PETRO: I read the speech. It strikes me as, I’ll say this, a throwaway line. It’s taken for granted in the context of the way Russia’s described in American politics today. It was striking to me that there was only one line devoted to Russia at all. I read really nothing at all into this. It was pretty much the least that he could be expected to say, given where he’s coming from, given the environment that he’s coming from, and given the audience to which he was speaking. AARON MATÉ: When you say Trump’s line about Ukraine and how Russia is destabilizing it, is taken for granted, can you explain that? Because the conventional understanding here, indeed, is that Russia has been the destabilizing force in Ukraine since this crisis broke out. NICOLAI PETRO: That’s not my reading of why this crisis broke out. In order to understand why there was separatism and striving for autonomy within Ukraine, this is an issue that goes back many decades within Ukrainian politics. This is, it’s very largely a domestic rivalry between east and west and south. After the overthrow of the legitimate government, the legitimate president in February 2014, the regions in the east and Crimea felt their role in the Ukrainian Civil Compact was being threatened. They decided to find a way out. Crimea did so, relying on Russian support. Donbass is still in the process of doing so. AARON MATÉ: Donbass, that’s the eastern part of the country where there still is a lot of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed forces. You talk about this being a domestic issue. Let’s talk about the international angle. What role the U.S. and the EU have played, and also what role Russia has played. And how all of this, you think, can be resolved, especially right now, as Trump continues to cite it as a major issue between the U.S. and Russia. NICOLAI PETRO: Well, we have in fact, an agreement and a road map, which lays out the expectations of what should happen to resolve this conflict. It’s known as the Minsk II accords. It has 10 points. The first three deal with the separation of forces. Although that has been imperfect, it has led to a reduction in the fighting that we’ve seen over the last two years. It goes beyond that to specific political measures, calling for, for example, a pardon and amnesty on the part of the government in Kiev of the rebels. It calls for restoring economic and financial ties between the rebel regions and Kiev. It also calls for constitutional amendments on decentralization. The government in Kiev has stalled all of those and back tracked, specifically on the economic and financial ties. There is no progress forward, primarily because Kiev is balking at implementing the Minsk accords. AARON MATÉ: Why are they doing that? NICOLAI PETRO: That’s a tricky question, because there are serious domestic forces that do not want to see this accord implemented. Because it calls for radical decentralization of the Ukrainian political system, and allowing regions to basically have significant cultural, economic and perhaps even political, autonomy. That would depend on exactly what the constitutional amendments are. But that is a vision of the future of Ukraine that radical nationalists do not approve of. They would like to see a centrally run Ukraine, modeled after the type of national identity that exists in the western regions of Ukraine. That is a large part of the current conflict, that the western regions of Ukraine and the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine see their identity within Ukraine very differently. AARON MATÉ: If Putin and Trump could reach an agreement on Ukraine that would be the most fair to all sides, what would it look like? Is Putin still seeking assurances that Ukraine will not join NATO? Is that still part of what drives him, in terms of his actions inside Ukraine? NICOLAI PETRO: Right now, the constitution of Ukraine stipulates that it must be a neutral country. The current government and the president have put forward the idea that Ukraine should change its constitution and adopt policy of joining NATO. Exactly how that’s going to be done is one of the controversial aspects of changing the constitution. It seems to me that if you treat Ukraine as a prize to be won between the west and Russia, then you’re losing sight of what is really the well-being of Ukraine itself. You’re treating it as an object, rather than respecting its own decisions. Whatever those decisions are. It’s really not my place to say. Whatever those decisions are, those should be the primary objective, not … If we’re concerned about Ukraine at all and its future stability of well-being, we should really listen to the voice of the people of Ukraine. And not specifically try to pull it into one sphere of influence or another. Those seem to me to be incompatible goals. AARON MATÉ: Finally, Professor Petro, I wonder if you could comment on the state right now of mainstream discussion around the issue of Trump and Russia, the U.S. and Russia. So much of it is focused on alleged Russian meddling in the election. What are the serious issues that you think should be addressed and looked at, as Putin and Trump are prepared to meet? NICOLAI PETRO: I concur that the mainstream media has done a disservice to our understanding of the issues that lie at the heart of our relationship with Russia. There has been a great deal of emphasis on innuendo and sensationalism, and almost, well I would say very little regard for waiting for the facts to appear and then drawing some conclusions and policies from established facts. As a result, we simply don’t have a Russian policy anymore. There is very little ability to have a discussion on what the issues are that need to be discussed. AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you to focus on just one issue, which is the military situation in Europe, with respect to Russia and its neighbors and NATO. You have constant military exercises going on, on NATO borders. As we talked about earlier, there’s still talk about Ukraine joining NATO. Poland just agreed to purchase U.S. patriot missiles, which is widely seen as a message to Russia. In terms of what could be addressed to reduce the military tensions between Russia and its neighbors, what could be done there and what is being ignored? NICOLAI PETRO: Well the Russian budget, over the next three years, the military budget, is being reduced. I’m not sure what other steps you would expect Russia to take. The United States by contrast, is ramping up its military. I guess in the expectation of doing what? Of using it somehow against Russia? I’m not sure what the logic here is of the simultaneous American military build-up, alongside the curtailment of Russian military expenditures. If you ask me what a reciprocal move would be for the United States, it would be to match Russia’s military reductions. AARON MATÉ: Which we’re probably not gonna see. Let me ask you finally about this report I had mentioned earlier in the introduction, about the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency. Concluding that it thinks that Russia believes that the U.S. wants regime change in Moscow. What do you think of that assessment and if it’s true, that Russia actually believes that, do you think that they have grounds for that concern? NICOLAI PETRO: I think it’s an accurate assessment, both of Russian thinking, but also it is hardly surprising. It strikes me as the mainstream assumption in many European capitals. It would hardly strike anyone as surprising, if you read western and United States press commentary and read the statements of leading senators, and see what action they’re taking. Their actions are seen as attempts to undermine and destabilize the Russian government. Why is that surprising? It seems obvious to me. AARON MATÉ: Well I think one reason why it might be surprising to most people is the fact that so much of the Trump, Russia story is the speculation that Putin is somehow controlling Trump in some way, after they supposedly colluded in getting Trump elected. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t think we’ve, we haven’t seen this Defense Intelligence Agency report get very much attention because I think it goes against that narrative. NICOLAI PETRO: Well I downloaded it recently and started to read it. Again, it strikes me as a statement of the obvious. If you want an earlier version of the same thing, read Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Munich Security Council in 2007, which was 10 years ago. It says exactly the same thing. I’m glad someone in the government recognizes that this view is widespread. AARON MATÉ: Except for perhaps in the U.S., at least in the U.S. media. NICOLAI PETRO: But how many, yes. How many people really think about Russia policy at all in the U.S.? I mean, for the most part, outside of the professional halls of government, this is where this particular report came from, the political sphere doesn’t deal with Russia as its own country. It deals with it as an aspect of the U.S. political debate, which means we can pretty much invent anything that we want about our attitudes toward it and about what Russia wants and does. I mean, think about how absurd it is to take seriously the argument that the president of the United States is a tool of the Russian government. I mean, it strikes me as an absurd claim, behind which there is actually no evidence and repeating it is simply a repetition of absurdities. AARON MATÉ: Well, I think that’s an important commentary on the state of our media and political culture right now. Nicolai Petro, I thank you for it. Nicolai Petro, Sylvia-Chandley professor of peace studies and nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island. He’s editor of the new book, Ukraine in Crisis. Thank you very much, professor. NICOLAI PETRO: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.