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As U.S. and Russian relations hit a new low, the Pentagon and State Department have drafted a plan to arm Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed rebels, a move that would escalate the country’s three-year war

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Aaron Maté : It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. U.S. and Russian ties are said to be at a new low. This comes after the U.S. announced new sanctions and the Kremlin ordered the reduction of U.S. diplomatic staff inside of Russian, but there is other news that could escalate tensions even more right at Russia’s doorstep. The Pentagon and State Department have drawn up plans to send arms to Ukraine. The proposal calls for any tank missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and other weaponry to help Kiev fight Russian backed sources in the east. When he was in office, President Obama considered a similar move but ultimately ruled against it because he didn’t want to fuel a proxy war. President Trump is expected to make a decision on this proposal in the coming months. Nicolai Petro is the Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace Studies and Non-violence at the University of Rhode Island. He’s editor of the recent book Ukraine in Crisis. Professor, welcome. Nicolai Petro: Nice to be with you, Aaron. Aaron Maté : Thank you for joining us again. Your reaction to this news that the Pentagon and State Department and apparently Trump has not weighed in on their plan, but these two agencies drawing up plans to arm Ukraine in this conflict. Nicolai Petro: Well, Ukraine has been receiving weaponry of all sorts already from individual NATO countries, but not from the United States. This puts the United States … Escalates the involvement I should say of the United States in this conflict and as far as I can tell, does nothing on the ground to change the situation. It’s purely a symbolic action by the United States to thumb its nose at Russia. Aaron Maté : Right. Can you talk about what it would likely mean if the U.S. adds more weapons to this conflict? Already 10,000 people have been killed. Certainly Ukraine is important to Putin and it’s on his western border. What he would likely do if the U.S. poured more weapons into this conflict? Nicolai Petro: I don’t anticipate any change in Russia’s strategy. Russia is supporting the rebel efforts to carve out some degree of autonomy for themselves within a federalistic type of Ukraine. They’re not trying to encourage Ukrainian, these regions of eastern Ukraine from leaving Russian. As a matter of face, when an announcement was made roughly a month ago about the attempt to create an independent region distinct from Ukraine, the Kremlin reacted negatively to that so- Aaron Maté : Professor, I think this is a very important point, because when we hear about this conflict, the shorthand is that basically Putin is backing separatists in the east. Implying that he supports separation. You’re saying though that’s not the case. Nicolai Petro: Right. They are not separatists in eastern Ukraine. In Crimea, they were separatists, but in eastern Ukraine although the referendum that they held there called for a separation, they decided to suspend that, the rulers. Their signatures on the Minsk accords stipulate that they are seeking reintegration into Ukraine, however, on their own terms. Aaron Maté : Right, okay. In terms of the reasons for why this would stoke tensions with Russia even more than they are already, can you explain briefly? I know it’s complicated, but what’s at stake for Russia and Ukraine? Nicolai Petro: Well, adding weaponry to a volatile situation where the cease-fire is not holding simply inflames the situation and is likely to lead not necessarily to what I would call an escalation of the conflict in a systematic way, but certainly to more casualties because we’re talking about the introduction of what is euphemistically referred to as lethal weaponry. That is to say the kind that’s specifically aimed to kill as many people as possible. That’s what the United States is contributing to this, to this conflict now apparently. Although I must say we may be jumping the gun here. As I understand the news reports, we’re talking about projects, plans that still have a ways to go to be concretized and funded and things like that. The other part of your question is what’s at stake for Russia. You know, I actually will disagree a little bit with the common assessment that Ukraine is important to Russia. That was true three years ago. That may have still been the case two years ago, but since then as far as I can … I believe rather that the leadership in the Kremlin has pretty much written off Ukraine for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be individual ties and close cultural ties, things like that, but they have written off the government as Ukraine as any sort of viable partner. If you want to understand what that means, you can look at the relationship that Russia had with Georgia between 2008 and until the removal of Mikheil Saakashvili by the Georgian people. Now there’s a very different and a much better relationship has been restored between Russia and Georgia, but as then-President [Midrids 00:07:10] have stated after the conflict with Georgia in 2008, Russia was simply not going to have anything to do with that particular Georgian government while retaining and trying to maintain close ties with the Georgian people. I think that pretty much summarizes the current state of affairs and attitudes that Russia has for Ukraine. Aaron Maté : On your point about the Kremlin having essentially written of Kiev as a partner, but there’s a distinction there between writing off someone as a partner and still not being involved and writing off the country, because Russia is still involved in Ukraine. It’s backing the forces that are fighting Kiev and presumably it wants to work to thwart what is Poroshenko’s goal, which is to join NATO. Poroshenko’s talked about joining NATO. He met with NATO officials recently. Russia certainly does not want another country in NATO on its border. Nicolai Petro: Yes, but that’s a sufficiently distant prospect that it’s not something that enters into current political calculations. When you say that Russia correctly is involved in Ukraine, it’s not just the military conflict in the east. Russia is also Ukraine’s largest economic trading partner. Russia provides the majority of coal that is used to heat Ukraine. Russia is in many ways has been and despite the efforts of the new Ukrainian government to sever ties and to distance itself from Russia, Russia remains economically indispensable to Ukraine’s wellbeing as any economist can tell you. We have here a policy on the part of the Ukrainian government which is in the process of trying to separate itself from Russia also damaging its own economic wellbeing and the social condition of its population. That undermines the Kiev government’s own level of support at home, which is why popularity ratings of the current government and the current president hover around 10%. It’s a paradoxical situation, and Russia has to find a way to maintain ties and build ties as much as possible with the population of Ukraine basically over the head of the government. Aaron Maté : Let me go back to the headline story we started with about Pentagon, State Department plan for arming Ukraine. It’s only speculation, but do you think that the release of this news was perhaps deliberate, timed to coincide with the escalation of tensions recently between the U.S. and Russia with the new sanctions on Russia and Russia announcing that it’s going to force a reduction in the U.S. diplomatic presence inside its borders? Nicolai Petro: In previous administrations, previous to the Trump administration, I would have assumed that there was coordination among the various branches of the U.S. government to establish a consistent policy on the such matters. In this administration however, I would just as easily believe that this is an attempt by one branch of the American government to undermine the president. In other words, this information could be leaked for any variety of reasons, some of them having nothing whatsoever to do with Russia but having everything to do with hobbling the foreign policy of Donald Trump. Aaron Maté : Well, we’ll leave it there. Nicolai Petro, Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace Studies and Non-violence at the University of Rhode Island. He’s editor of the recent book Ukraine in Crisis. Professor, thank you. Nicolai Petro: Thank you. Aaron Maté : Thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Nicolai N. Petro is the Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace Studies and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island. He is currently joining us from Odessa, Ukraine.

He served as special assistant for policy toward the Soviet Union in the U.S. Department of State from 1989 to 1990. He has received many fellowships, including two Fulbright awards (one to Russia and one to Ukraine).

He comments frequently about Russia and Ukraine, and his latest book, Ukraine in Crisis, was published this month by Routledge.