Death Toll Rises to Over 5,350 in Ukraine

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Number of displaced people and inflation are creating great distress in the country says, Nicolai Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The UN has raised the death toll in Eastern Ukraine from 5,000 last week to over 5,300 this week–up by 300 people in just one week. Besides the death toll, a humanitarian crisis is looming. One-point-five million people have been displaced in the last year. They are homeless and have no access to basic goods. All combined, all of this is also spinning Ukraine into economic crisis. There appears to be no end in sight.

And our next guest, Nicolai Petro, says that peace is unlikely until Ukrainian politics are brought into conformity with the country’s bicultural reality.

To explore all of this further is Nicolai Petro. He is professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island.

Thank you so much for joining us.

NICOLAI PETRO, PROFESSOR, POLITICS, UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND: Hello, Sharmini.

PERIES: So, Nikolai, let’s begin with the latest that death toll. What caused this most recent escalation?

PETRO: There has been ongoing fighting despite the ceasefire negotiated in September in two agreements that the parties signed in Minsk. But there have been various attempts to suppress the fighting and to withdraw the parties from the demarcation line. But the demarcation of forces line is in fact something that the two parties do not agree on. And although there was apparently a protocol addendum to the Minsk accords that stipulated what those accords were, neither side was willing to abide by them. And, in fact, on October 29, Kiev recalled the signature of Ukrainian army general Yury Dumansky from the demarcation line that had been initialed.

So the other side, the rebels, interpreted this as a withdrawal from the accords and proceeded to fight for more territory, which they have obtained. They have gained, by Ukrainian estimates, approximately 550 square kilometers of additional territory since the treaty was–since the agreement was negotiated in October.

PERIES: You were just there. Now tell me more about what you observed, what you saw. What is life like ordinary people under this conflict zone?

PETRO: Well, we should bear in mind that actual fighting and casualties is highly localized in the two easternmost regions of Ukraine. In the rest of the country, including the South, the southern city of Odessa, where I lived, you don’t see fighting. What one–the impact of the war there is on the price of goods, rampant inflation, the collapse of the local currencies’ exchange rate with the dollar and the euro, and restrictions on the ability to withdraw funds, prices skyrocketing for basic goods and services, and, of course, more recently, mobilization of ever larger numbers of recruits for the war effort.

So President Poroshenko signed a law on January 19 for three new waves of mobilization that will effectively, if necessary, he said, double the size of the army. And this has led to a reaction among some of the populace who don’t want to serve, including, apparently, in Odessa, from what I read in local papers, trying to avoid conscription, if necessary escaping across the border into Russia.

PERIES: Now, you were referring to sort of the escalation of the war on the side of the government by recruitment, recruiting. Now, how are they affording all of this? Because they’re also experiencing a huge economic crisis at the moment.

PETRO: That’s a very good question. One of the reasons that the disbursement of the IMF funding to Ukraine was suspended in September and is–still the parameters of that are being negotiated constantly–is because all sides acknowledge that in covering its military expenditures, the Ukrainian government was utilizing, re-appropriating those funds that were intended for domestic reforms and support of social services toward Ukraine’s ever-growing military needs. So I’m not sure in the future, going forward, how they can afford this.

Now, as you know, the United States is considering the disbursement of additional military support, including money for lethal weapons. The Ukrainian Freedom Support Act signed by President Obama on December 18 provides up to $350 million in aid over the next three years.

PERIES: This is through NATO?

PETRO: This is directly through the United States, because NATO doesn’t have a policy of support, and Germany and France have both said that they do not intend to provide military assistance to Ukraine. France just said that today. On the other hand, the Baltic states and Poland, both members of NATO, as individual states, are providing already such support and training to Ukrainian forces. The United States is also going to be providing training through American soldiers, who will deploy in Ukraine this spring to train four companies of the Ukrainian National Guard. That was decided on January 22.

PERIES: So this fairly local Ukrainian, what you describe as really an ethnic conflict at play, is now escalated to a geopolitical one. Can you describe why this is so contentious and why this has come to the global stage?

PETRO: Well, I think that in what is, I think, as you correctly describe, a conflict that has roots in very different senses of Ukrainian national identity, there is an overlay. And the Russophone Ukrainians in the eight eastern regions of the country, who traditionally have comprised 40 percent of the population, feel culturally close to Russia. They don’t want to join Russia. That option has always been considered attractive by a relatively small number of people. But within Ukraine, they’ve always wanted to be able to speak their traditional language and hold to their traditional religion–Eastern Orthodoxy–under the Moscow patriarchy, and in addition, given the turmoil back that took place in Ukraine in early 2014, they have now been pushing for local self-government.

The Western portions of Ukraine were the ones that really supported the change in government–some call it a coup; some simply call it a change in government–in Kiev in February 21. And throughout this process of rebellion and popular revolt that led to the ousting of President Yanukovych, the West very much supported the people on the Maidan, then the rebels, from the West. And so they have very much–I think the current government of the United States and Europe had very much invested in the success of this new government, which has taken important steps toward legitimizing itself by holding presidential, early presidential elections and parliamentary elections. But, unfortunately, the very act of overturning the presidency–.

PERIES: Who was popularly elected.

PETRO: Yes, it was popularly elected, as you point out, Yanukovych, and for whom there would have been new elections held in any case under the new constitution in February 2015. That act is seen by many people in Crimea and in the Donbas region that are now fighting against the Cuban government as delegitimizing its authority.

PERIES: Nicolai, I mean, everything you describe to me is nothing but a coup. Why would anyone argue otherwise?

PETRO: Well, I think because the word coup is a negative term. So you don’t–like annexation, for example. One can look at the situation in Crimea and say, ah, there is an example of annexation, or you can take the position that what happened in Crimea was initially a secession, and then after the secession there was a unification of an already de facto independent territory to Russia.

But politics is very much involved in one’s assessment. So some people will insist on the term annexation, as some people will insist on the use of the term coup. But I think in both cases it would be better for historians, to allow historians to decide that matter for the future. What I think or what I would hope people would be more concerned about right now is how to end the bloodshed and what concrete steps could be taken today, given the situation on the ground and the real support that repeated referenda and voting have shown for the rebels in Donbas and for secession in Crimea. Where do we move move forward from here so that this does not become a festering wound that brings down all of Ukraine and any prospect for Ukrainian democracy?

PERIES: Which you have actually indicated, that unless Ukraine has an official recognition that this is a bicultural society, the conflict really is not going to be resolved. How can that be brought about, at least in terms of discussions at this point?

PETRO: Well, a very good first step would be to have the government in Kiev and the rebel government in Donbas deal with each other directly, because if it has certainly not been helpful for the Ukrainian parliament to officially designate the rebel leaders as terrorists and those governments as terrorist organizations. It’s just as unhelpful for the leaders of the rebellion to constantly refer to the government in Kiev as fascists if at the very least they should be encouraged by all parties outside of the conflict to actually sit down and negotiate with each other directly. And to date that has actually never happened. The Minsk accords were a tricky way of having the government in Kiev be represented by an indirect third party who happened to be the president of–the former president of Ukraine, who, however, is acting as a volunteer with unspecified responsibilities to act for Ukraine. On the other side, you’ve got the rebel leaders, who were the only ones actually signing the document on behalf of their constituents. The other members of this agreement, of the trilateral contact group, are the Russian ambassador and the E.U. ambassador [incompr.] OSCE ambassador, Heidi Tagliavini, who are there simply as observers. So it’s not at all clear throughout this whole process who was actually assuming responsibility for any direct action. And I think the only way to get through this roadblock is for the parties to negotiate directly between themselves.

PERIES: Nicolai, I thank you so much for joining us today and explaining all of this to us.

PETRO: Thank you.

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

End

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