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Tarik Cyril Amar of Columbia University says explicitly ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine would be in Ukraine’s best interest

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. The battle in Ukraine between separatists and Ukrainian government is back in the spotlight. On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet with President Obama to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. Merkel will be returning from her trip to Russia, where she will be advocating for a diplomatic solution rather than a military one from both sides. In Washington, congressmen on both sides of the aisle have been pushing President Obama to provide arms to the Ukrainian government, but the White House has not made a final decision yet. Now joining us to unpack all of this is our guest, Tarik Cyril Amar. He is an assistant professor of history at Columbia University, and his upcoming book is titled The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists. Thank you so much for joining us, Tarik. TARIK CYRIL AMAR, PROF. OF HISTORY, COLUMBIA UNIV.: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: So, Tarik, why are we seeing a potential split in strategy between the U.S. and Europe? What are both sides interests here? AMAR: Well, I can only guess, of course. But in particular, talking about the European position, the Europeans are not entirely speaking with one voice, either. But if you look, for instance, at the Germans Merkel and her ministers and also at France, of course, [incompr.] in French members of both the European Union and NATO, then there clearly now against, and publicly they’ve explicitly come out against what’s called lethal aid–meaning Western arms–to Ukraine. And I think that the reasons are several. One of those is very simple. It’s proximity. The Europeans are simply much closer to this conflict. And any further escalation is more dangerous to them in a more immediate way. Also, of course, if what we’re seeing now, which is already terrible, we are looking at around a million displaced persons, after all, already. If that is increased once again, for example, in a scenario of perhaps a full-scale Russian invasion, then European governments have to think, of course, about where these refugees will go. So proximity is important. The other factor is, of course, energy. Europe is in part–in part and to a substantial degree–dependent on energy that it gets from Russia, mostly in the form of natural gas. That dependency has decreased over recent years. But it is still big enough to certainly cause–to certainly be a major factor of concern for them. Right now we have, actually, a summit or, rather, a meeting taking place in Riga, which is organized by the E.U., and the whole purpose of the meeting is to discuss energy security [incompr.]. And then, of course, there’s trade. We often see and stress that the sanctions, combined with the fall in oil price, have hit Russia, and in particular Putin’s regime, very hard. And that’s certainly true. But, of course, there’s a price, and that price is not so much the counter-sanctions and Russia has also imposed, but the fact that the Europeans cannot trade the way they used to trade with Russia. And Russia is, the Russian Federation is the third largest trading partner of the European Union after the United States and after China. That’s a volume of about 330 billion euros–not dollars, so it’s even a little more in dollars–per year. And to give you just one example, about 70-80 billion out of that, once again, are the figure that you would have to give for the trade the German companies alone are doing with Russia. And there are, of course, interests in Europe that would like to see a restoration of more normal relationships. DESVARIEUX: Alright. And I should tell our viewers that we have done a series of stories on this issue, so you should definitely check those stories out. But now let’s specifically focus on the United States and their intentions. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Ukrainian president, and he told them that the U.S. is not interested in a proxy war with Russia. And some on Capitol Hill who agree with that idea but yet are still in support in support of lethal aid, like Democratic Senator Jack Reed–he said, quote, “key here is to give the Ukrainians the ability to defend” itself and to get back to a political solution. So, Tarik, what do you make of that argument? AMAR: Well, I’m not astonished that nobody would openly come out and say, we want a proxy war with Russia. That would be insane. And I don’t think anybody wants that. But the problem, in my view, with the suggestion to actually provide Ukraine with weapons is that it may lead to a proxy war nevertheless, because if you look at the arguments that are being advanced in favor of this idea, then they’re all based on one very simple guess, namely that by increasing the number of Russian casualties in Eastern Ukraine, Putin can be forced to return to a different style of negotiation, in essence to abandon its aggressive posture and to make what for him would be concessions. That is something we actually have no reason to simply assume. In reality, we do not know whether he would do that. And, frankly, my interpretation, my personal guess, is that Putin has rather shown the opposite, that he is loathe to concede, and he is especially loath to concede anything under open pressure. One really has to ask whether that would not lead to a further escalation. And, in fact, the German minister of defense has just made precisely that argument at the security conference that is now underway in Munich. And it is, I think, also the position of the German government as a whole. The idea here is that providing weapons into this conflict is much more likely to lead to a further escalation. It will be extremely damaging for Ukraine. We have seen terrible harm done to this country already. But there can, of course, be situations that are even worse than what we have seen, and I think there might very well emerge then. DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s move on and discuss the role of NATO in this Ukrainian crisis. We have is potential split between the U.S. and Europe about strategy. But on February 5 it was announced that the NATO response forces will more than double to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and the challenge of Islamic extremism. Tarik, do you see this as a signal that the West is positioning itself for potential war with Russia? AMAR: I personally would not assume that. I think what is so strange about the crisis in Ukraine, at the latest since spring, the spring of last year, is the fact that NATO has behaved very ambiguously and that the West has behaved in a very ambiguous manner. On one side, measures have been taken that are perfectly reasonable as part of NATO essentially protecting itself and protecting its current members. But on the other side, we have engaged in a policy that treats Ukraine in some ways as if it were a member. And that’s a huge problem that we have to resolve. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. And it’s also not a de facto member of NATO. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have rights. That doesn’t mean its sovereignty somehow doesn’t count. But of course it makes a difference. If it didn’t make a difference, why do we have NATO? So this particular reaction actually, I think, could also be interpreted in a much more opposite optimistic way. You could see that as a relatively reasonable move in this whole terrible scenario that is unfolding now, namely, a move that is signaling that NATO is being specific about how to defend especially its eastern member states. That in effect could be something that clarifies relationships with Russia. It could avoid ambiguities. It is also something that can help the eastern member states to feel more secure, for example, of course, the Baltic states and Poland, which in turn, in an ideal scenario, might have them help them to take a more deliberate and a more rational position on the Ukrainian conflict. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s turn the corner and talk about some solutions. How would you advise the United States to approach this issue? And what would policy really look like if it was in the interests of everyday Ukrainians? AMAR: As you probably know, there are a lot of suggestions about this, in fact. I think it’s extremely important to end the current escalation of violence. The most important thing that the West can do and that in my view it has not done sufficiently is in fact exert pressure on Kiev. I think there’s a strong argument to be made for Kiev to really needing the West to take over the role of, on one side, supporting it, but on the other side, explicitly limiting its ambitions, and to a certain degree also urging it to even accept a much less than ideal outcome. That would enable politicians in Kiev to actually turn around to their domestic audiences and say to them, we have done what we could to defend our territory, they’ve tried it the hard way, but in fact we are not getting Western support, at least not military support–of course, they’re getting a lot of other support, and that’s alright and the right thing to do. We’re not getting Western military support. Therefore our options are limited, and we will all have to accept third-best negotiated solution with both the separatists, who are real–they’re not only Russians; they’re real separatists–and, of course, also with Russia, which is backing the separatists. That is one thing that the West could do in very concrete terms. Then, of course, one would probably need a new line of demarcation, a retreat of at least heavy armaments on both sides from that line. That sort of geographic regime would have to be implemented much more sincerely than what was done after the ceasefire agreement of Minsk of last September that has now finally broken down. We might need another injection of international observers, maybe even peacekeepers. That might be necessary, in fact. Certainly what’s very important is to talk about an amnesty. There has to be an amnesty for almost everybody who has fought in this conflict. If there is no amnesty offered, if Kiev insists on calling everybody resisting it a terrorist, which means somebody who has to simply be wiped out, or at least punished in terms of criminal law, then, of course, there’s no incentive on the other side to come to a compromise. As hard as it is and as unfair as it is in many ways, I think an amnesty will be necessary. DESVARIEUX: But, Tarik, what about the solution of federalization and decentralization? AMAR: Decentralization definitely makes sense for Ukraine simply on its own terms. Many experts agree, including in Ukraine, that the current centralized unitary structure of the Ukrainian state is actually not efficient and that it will be in the way of reforming Ukraine. And it needs to be reformed, as we all know. Therefore it is, of course, something that could serve as a win-win opportunity. On one side, one could negotiate a special status, especially for the Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the Ukrainian part of the Donbas, where the fighting now is and where the crisis is acute. And on the other side, one could also achieve an urgently needed domestic reform. I should add one thing that I haven’t mentioned yet and that’s very important too. It has often been argued that NATO membership for Ukraine is not offered, and therefore Russia should not worry about it, and therefore we don’t have to discuss it. But I think in reality we simply have no influence on what Russia chooses to worry about. And worrying about NATO membership for Ukraine does not actually take paranoia. That’s a relatively ordinary idea that the Russians are entertaining there. And I do think that the French president has finally just done the right thing by signaling very strongly to Russia that we are ready to really state that Ukraine will not get into NATO. And it may sound hard for many Ukrainians, but I’m convinced that explicitly ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine is actually in Ukraine’s best interests. DESVARIEUX: Alright. Tarik Cyril Amar, thank you so much for joining us. AMAR: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Tarik Cyril Amar is a historian of the 20th century, specializing in the history of Ukraine, Russia, and the Soviet Union. He is an associate professor in the department of history at Koç University, and was previously an assistant professor of history at Columbia University. He received his BA from Oxford University, MSc from London School of Economics, and PhD from Princeton University. Amar is the former academic director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv. He is the author of The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Nazis, Stalinists, and Nationalists.