Visiting professor speaks on Ukraine, the Soviet Block and fallen governments


Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych has been on the run since he was voted out by Parliament over a week ago. Yanukovych was fleeing charges that held him responsible for the mass killings of civilians: an estimated 88 have been killed in attempts to suppress the protests-turned-riots that have been growing in frequency and violence. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently revealed that he has been contacted by Ukraine's runaway President Yanukovych, who is seeking military intervention on behalf of the Russian population residing in Eastern Ukraine. While the Ukrainian parliament has peacefully been working on assembling an interim government since the impeachment, Putin echoed Yanukovych's last public words before he disappeared, claiming that extremists have orchestrated a coup d'état.

But Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United States, claims that military intervention is "completely legitimate under Russian law," according to Bloomberg News.

The other seven most industrialized powers in the world have officially condemned Russia's build-up in Ukraine. The "G8" consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US and Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to tighten their grip on the Crimean peninsula, the most Eastern part of Ukraine that borders up against Russia.

Dr. David Curp, a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, believes this crisis is evidence of a much bigger problem. Curp visited The King's College as an honorary guest speaker last Tuesday, Feb. 25 and gave a presentation entitled "Fallen Governments." During his visit, Curp sat down with the Empire State Tribune to discuss what may have contributed to the present situation between Russia and the Ukraine.

Your presentation is called "Fallen Governments." What can you tell us about the various stages and cycles that many governments go through?

Often, people will refer to what’s going on in Eastern Europe as transition. The trouble with this is that there’s a kind of optimistic assumption that after a collapse people start getting their acts together, although that is not always the case. Sometimes societies can fall into cycles of decline and corruption that can last for a very long time. I think what we’re seeing in the former soviets case is that Russia and Ukraine, a sort of prolonged crisis.

We should know where the minefields are. But I think there needs to be a real humility about our capacity to diffuse all the conflicts in other societies. There are a lot of things that we can’t do. I think the case of ongoing Soviet and post-Soviet decline of cultures… might just remain a kind of mess for a very long time.

Although Ukraine’s long history of being subjugated by foreign powers, their president, Viktor Yanukovych, has made strides towards strengthening alliances with Moscow. From a historical standpoint, how do you see that playing out in their future?

One of my favorite statements was as a historian who said, “Don’t ask me to predict the future. But tell me what happened and I’ll prove it was inevitable.”

Here we’re dealing with such a fluid situation. We’ve already seen the Orange Revolution in 2004, an attempt to reform Ukrainian politics... There was this euphoria, a rise of democratic politicians, and they proved unable to reform as expected—President Yanukovych made a sort of comeback.

You have Russia with a remarkable amount of power and influence in Ukraine, whose current government regime has a lot at stake in assuring that Ukraine stay within its orbit, or at least not succeed in a democratic transition.

A big part of the deal that President Yanukovych made with President Putin included large subsidies and benefits on the export and import of gas.

Yes, and it is an interesting topic too— a number of people have observed there is often a negative correlation between democracy and oil-rich societies. You have the kind of resource that provides governments--especially authoritarian regimes--the ability to buy off a great deal of popular support, and also a certain degree of international acquiescence to authoritarian practices. We don’t push the Saudi’s for instance, and there are good reasons for that. But it also means that the democratization in Saudi Arabia is exceedingly unlikely.

Your presentation mentioned a sort of overly optimistic view that many countries are seen as being on their way towards democracy--that it is held as a sort of ideal. Do you think that comes from the fact that we are a democracy, and we’d like to see that spread?

Absolutely--I think its one of our blind spots. We tend to view politics [in a way that] if people think about it, they will realize that consensus politics are the best, and that politics are a matter of horse-trading. I don’t think anyone imagines, that there is ever going to be anything like a total political victory for either side. We’re used to the notion of pluralism. And we project that. And that’s a problem. Because win/win is not necessarily how everyone thinks about politics.

Eastern and Western Ukraine speak different languages and each have unique cultures. Would you go so far as to say that Eastern and Western Ukraine might have different ideologies and political aspirations for what they want in the future?

This is one of the things we need to always be careful of: closed societies with careful control over the media make it very hard to understand what ordinary people are thinking. We can easily start to tease out all the different perspectives Americans have on an issue, because we talk about them incessantly. But we don’t know necessarily what people in eastern Ukraine believe. And I think this gets even worse— I wonder how much a person in a closed society even knows what they think. For people who live in a kind of intellectual echo chamber, where everybody has a group consensus, it can be very hard to step away from it.

Do you really think that Russia would go so far as to try and take back Ukraine with military force?

One of the more striking things that Vladimir Putin has said—and he has a talent for being very quotable, in a rather thuggish way—that the collapse of the soviet union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

For people like Putin, their whole world ended in ‘91. Their sense of themselves and their sense of their country’s place in the world was radically altered, and they have never reconciled themselves for the kinds of losses they’ve suffered.

For many Russians, Ukraine is essentially just a constituent part of Russia. It was the place where the first Russian civilization emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries. It’s not all been a history of oppression…but I don’t think that Putin and his political partners have a sense of how far they are willing to go. People miscalculate. It’s possible to take all kinds of risks that you cannot, in fact, afford.

What do you think Ukrainians see in furthering alliances with Europe?

When many [Ukrainians] look at admission into the European Union, they say “this is our chance to cut through the corruption that has beset Ukraine since its founding and even since the Soviet era.  You have this long set of dysfunction, and many of them are looking to membership in the EU as a kind of point of leverage where they can start to shift things in a more liberal democratic action.

We tend to underestimate, the difficulties in making a multi-lingual democracy work. What happens when you have both differences in tradition and language. Think of all the ways that we purposefully and accidentally misunderstand each other in American political discourse. Now imagine throwing in 20 or 30 different languages into that mix and imagine where it would go.


Curp believes the battle over Ukraine to be a neo-Soviet attempt to re-gather lost lands. Several days ago, President Putin ordered 150,000 troops to be on high alert along the border. Reuters reported that Crimea, a region in Eastern Ukraine, is “home to part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which Moscow said it was taking steps to secure."

This is not the first time Russia has pulled a stunt like this. In 2008, Russia used very similar language to defend its protecting of regions in Georgia before eventually invading.

According to Reuters, “Any military action in Ukraine, a country of 46 million people that has close ties with European powers and the United States, would be far more serious.”

As the Russian-Ukrainian political climate continues to shift rapidly, the world will stand by to watch how leading countries like the G8 respond to Russian advances.