Political science professor Nicolai Petro explains why Ukrainian national identity plays such a decisive role in today’s conflict. The fundamental issue at stake is whether Ukraine should be a monocultural or a bicultural nation.

A worker takes a selfie before removing a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag attached by protesters atop Stalin-era skyscraper in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. Photo: AP

Political science professor and Russia expert Nicolai Petro recently returned from a Fulbright research project in Ukraine, where he had a chance to witness first-hand the tumultuous political situation that has divided the country. In the Q&A below, Petro suggests that the struggle over Ukrainian national identity plays the decisive role in deciding the final outcome of the crisis.

Nicolai N. PetroDifferences over Ukrainian national identity also account for the sometimes wildly divergent media narratives that Kiev and Moscow have embraced to define the crisis in Ukraine. The differences are so irreconcilable that they have led to military attacks against a nation’s own citizens.

The tragedy, says Petro, is that the West could have avoided the current confrontation in Ukraine by responding differently to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ultimately, though, the future of Ukraine must be settled domestically and not by external forces: Russia can no more divide a united Ukraine than the West can keep a divided Ukraine together.

Russia Direct: You've just come back from a Fulbright research project in Odessa. Can you tell us a little about the results of your research?

Nicolai Petro: My project was a book-length study of the rising political influence of the Orthodox Church in the political life of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. I chose Odessa as my vantage point because of its reputation as a place that is tolerant of diverse cultural and religious traditions, but that also has a large and influential Orthodox presence.

I spoke about my topic in several academic and religious venues, but by the end of January, my academic agenda was overtaken by current events. I became a “media resource” simply by virtue of the fact that I was living in Ukraine. During the first half of the year I gave more than ninety interviews to media outlets in a dozen countries.     

RD: To what extent do you feel that what you witnessed on the ground in Ukraine matches up with what we're seeing and reading in the Western media? What are some of the fallacies that Americans (or the West in general) have towards the Ukraine crisis?

N.P: Media narratives are established by “authoritative sources.” These include government spokespersons, prestige media, and sources that are “on location.” They provide the raw and often contradictory information from which journalists and editors select the themes to stress. While some tend to be more skeptical of official government sources than others, as a rule, the prestige media in any country aligns closely with its government. This is as true for Europe and America as it is for Russia.

For me, two things stand out about Western press coverage in Ukraine. The first is the degree to which it is defined by the government in Kiev, which argues, rather implausibly, that there are no cultural tensions within the country. The fact that this conflict is being exacerbated by the current government’s attempt to impose one version of Ukrainian national identity over all others is generally lost.

The second thing that stands out is the Western media’s uncritical acceptance of the idea that Russia is to blame for everything. Media scholars call this “flocking.” Dominant news paradigms, they point out, are supported as much by the expectations of readers as by the judgments of editors and writers. A dominant “ideology” thus forges a consistent media message despite the plurality of sources.

In this case there is clearly a dominant ideology about “bad Russia” in the minds of most readers, writers, and editors of the prestige media. As a result, a quintessentially domestic conflict has been transformed into a traditional Cold War confrontation, in which the issues indigenous to Ukraine are largely irrelevant.

RD: Today it's difficult to figure out what is really going on along the Russian-Ukrainian border, as both sides keep releasing conflicting reports. What is your take on this so-called "information war"?

N.P: Modern warfare is as much about shaping public attitudes toward one’s opponents as it is about military victory. Shaping the media narrative in one’s favor can give a government carte blanche to do whatever it wants, even to flaunt international law or international institutions.

Each of the five major sides in this conflict (the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian rebels, the EU, the United States, and Russia) seeks to shape public opinion. The governments of NATO, the United States, and Ukraine are coordinating their narrative quite successfully so that it is about a single issue — Russian aggression.

Russia is therefore on the defensive. Its media strategy has been to try and shift the focus to Kiev’s responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place in Eastern Ukraine. This message is heard, but not as widely accepted.

The rebels themselves have not developed an effective media strategy. As a result, the media narrative about them is being shaped by forces that are hostile to them.  

A man walks with a Ukrainian national flag walks past a statue of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin decorated with a Ukrainian national flag in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Photo: AP

RD: What part does Ukrainian national identity play in today's conflict?

N.P: It plays a decisive role. In my writings I sometimes refer to the Russian-speaking population as “the Other Ukraine.” As I see it, the current conflict is only the most recent in a dispute that goes back many generations. The issue at stake is who gets to define what it means to be Ukrainian.

One version is rooted in the Galician region of Western Ukraine. For Galicians, being Ukrainian means suppressing Russian culture so that Ukrainian culture can replace it. This requires distancing Ukraine from Russia culturally, economically and politically. This is sometimes referred to as making a “civilizational choice,” in favor of Europe and against Russia.

A very different version of Ukrainian identity exists throughout much of the East and South, and is especially strong in Donbas and Crimea. In these regions, being Ukrainian means being close to but distinct from Russia. People there do not wish to secede, but they do not want to be forced to forsake their history and culture in order to be part of Ukraine. They want Ukrainian and Russian culture to coexist as equals in Ukraine.

So the fundamental issue is whether Ukraine should be a monocultural or a bicultural nation. Feelings on this issue run so high that for many compromise is unacceptable. The result is bloodshed. 

RD: What's the future of Ukraine as a state? Could a "federalism" plan really work?

N.P: Federalism is, of course, theoretically possible. It has worked in other countries with populations far more culturally diverse, but it will not work in Ukraine because influential nationalist elements consider it treason. Thanks to their legislative efforts in parliament, the concept has been effectively criminalized. As the State Prosecutor for the Odessa region recently explained to journalists: “One can gather, one can talk about federalism, but one cannot call for federalism in public.” This makes it very difficult to discuss.

RD: What scenarios - both best case and worst case - do you see moving forward in Ukraine? How serious will the consequences of the crisis be for Europe?

N.P: Kiev’s goal is total military victory in Donbas. If it can achieve this, then negotiations become unnecessary. Kiev will then have a free hand to pursue a policy of pacification which will necessarily include: replacing the entire political, financial, and security elites; a resettlement of the population from other regions to Donbas in order to replace the 20 percent who have fled the current fighting; a return to forced Ukrainianization.

Since a recurrence of tensions in this region cannot be prevented without some degree of ethnic and cultural cleansing, this will be accepted in the West as the price for permanently separating Ukraine from Russia. I consider this to be the best scenario imaginable for the current government in Kiev.

By contrast, the rebel strategy is to make the cost of victory so high that Kiev will prefer negotiations. If successful, Donbas will remain within Ukraine but strengthen its economic, cultural, and political ties with Russia. Russia is likely to again invest heavily in the region in order to make it a showcase for the advantages of the Eurasian Union.

A more prosperous Eastern Ukraine will then have the clout to force the government in Kiev to concede equal cultural rights to Russian speakers, and to seriously consider federalism.

Absorption of Donbas into the Russian Federation, however, remains an unlikely prospect because Russia does not need the aggravation of further damaging relations with the West, or of bearing the burden of rebuilding the shattered lives and infrastructure of more than six million Ukrainians. This is the best scenario for the rebels.

As for how it will actually turn out, it is still too early to say. Although the rebels have fewer resources, Kiev is under a more serious time constraint. The government is suffering from a perennial shortage of money, resources, and military personnel.

If, by the late fall, the military campaign is not victorious, popular frustration with the war, and the austerity measures imposed by the government, could lead to yet another wave of popular unrest. The rebels, by contrast, need only demonstrate that they are tenacious and willing to negotiate staying within Ukraine. 

RD: How effective is the strategy of pressuring Russia with sanctions from your point of view? What other strategy could the West use?

N.P: To determine whether a strategy is effective one must determine at the outset what it intends to accomplish. If the purpose of sanctions was to change Russian policy toward Ukraine, then they have failed. If the purpose of sanctions was to boost Putin’s popularity inside Russia and rally popular support around his policies, then sanctions were successful.

The sharpness of this disparity suggests that the West has no considered strategy about what to do for Ukraine, or how to influence Russian actions there. Sanctions thus seem designed primarily to placate domestic critics and show them that the West is “doing something,” even if that something has the opposite effect.

I believe that Russia’s goal of forcing Kiev into a dialogue with the rebels in Eastern Ukraine has a much greater chance of achieving a stable negotiated settlement than the current Western-backed policy of total military victory, and subsequent military occupation of what still will be a very resentful Donbas.  

RD: To what extent is the annexation of Crimea a fait accompli? Does the international community realistically have any options for forcing Russia to return Crimea?

N.P: I can envision no scenario under which Crimea returns to Ukraine.

RD: Some Russia experts today say that the U.S. and Russia are engaged in a new Cold War. Do you agree or disagree?

N.P: I agree. Our generation squandered the opportunities afforded by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of forging a new pan-European security framework anchoring Russia to Europe, it re-purposed NATO and disingenuously pretended that a military alliance that excluded Russia, and that justified its continued existence as a bulwark against threats from Russia, would not invariably be perceived as directed against Russia.

The key emotional and cognitive transformation that must be achieved, and that was not achieved by this first post-Cold War generation, is to recognize that Russia is an inalienable part of Europe. If Russia had been embraced as part of Europe immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO might have expanded to include Russia, a prospect that Putin still saw as a distinct possibility back in 2000.

All the conflicts that have occurred in Eastern Europe since then have been the result of the fateful decision to exclude Russia from the European alliance system, and to set up a separate track for dealing with Russia instead of bringing her into the consultative process. Had Russia been part of Europe, the entire political and cultural conflict in Ukraine would also have been avoided since there would be no “civilizational choice” to make.

A boy looks round as he walks up the stairs of the bomb shelter after the shelling in Petrovskiy district in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Photo: AP

RD: Who are the real winners and losers in the current Ukrainian crisis?

N.P: There are no winners in a tragedy of this scale; there are only those who have suffered less devastating losses. The need to resurrect “the Cold War toolbox,” as NATO’s deputy secretary-general puts it, comes from the impossible situation the U.S. and its allies have created for themselves.

They are simultaneously unable to stop the fighting in Ukraine, but also unwilling to work together with Russia to end it. Understandably, as long as it feels it has the West’s backing to pursue military victory over the East, Kiev has absolutely no incentive to negotiate with the rebels.

But this conflict has also produced several new domestic actors. Political analysts have written about how Dnipropetrovsk governor Igor Kolomoisky is reaping the benefits of war: He now has a well-armed and battle-tested private army, he has demanded more authority over neighboring regions, and his financial holdings have benefited greatly from his close relations with the new regime.

Pro-Maidan political analyst Vadim Karasyov argues that the alternative centers of power being created by Kolomoisky and local oligarchs (not to mention ambitious new local field commanders) will result in a “feudalized” Ukraine.

RD: What's the one must-read book you'd suggest to understand the historical and cultural context of the current Ukrainian crisis?

N.P: I am currently enjoying Andrew Wilson’s The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (Yale, 2009). Although a few years out of date, it does a good job of conveying how very far apart the positions of Western and Eastern Ukrainians are on issues crucial to national identity, such as history, language, and politics. After reading him, it is not at all surprising to learn that one side routinely calls the other “a fifth column,” to which the other side responds by labelling their opponents “fascists.”

None of this bodes well for bringing the current conflict to an end. Ultimately, Russia can no more divide a united Ukraine than the West can keep a divided Ukraine together. Finding enough common ground to preserve national unity is therefore something that Ukrainians will have to do for themselves.

Nicolai N. Petro is a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island specializing in Russia and its neighboring states. He has previously served in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs in the U.S. Department of State and at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and has held fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. He is the author of several books on Russian democratic development and foreign policy and has published in The American Interest, The New York Times, The Nation, The National Interest, The Wilson Quarterly and elsewhere. He has just returned from a year-long State Department sponsored Fulbright Research Fellowship in Ukraine. His professional web site is www.npetro.net.