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On perspectives of Zelensky's presidency

Mitchell A. Orenstein is a leading scholar of the political economy and international affairs of Central and Eastern Europe. He is Professor and Chair of Russian and East European Studies at University of Pennsylvania and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Professor Orenstein’s research focuses on the political economy of transition in Central and Eastern Europe, pension privatization worldwide, the role of ideas in economic policy reform, and Russia’s hybrid war on the West. Among other works on political economy and foreign policy, he is the author of three prize-winning books.

He is the author most recently of The Lands in Between: Russia vs. The West and the New Politics of Hybrid War (Oxford University Press, 2019), a study of how intensifying geopolitical conflict has shaped politics in the lands in between Russia and the West. It documents the “civilizational choice” faced by these countries, the resulting sharp polarization of politics, and the rise of corrupt power brokers who balance between both sides. While this politics is most evident in the lands in between, it is increasingly prevalent throughout Europe and the West. We are all lands in between.

1. Recently, you released a book called “The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War.” Could you share with us 2-3 key points you touch upon in your book and what crucial lessons Ukraine could draw from them?

The key message of this book is that geopolitical conflict polarized politics and paradoxically in polarized societies like Ukraine, the leading oligarchs and politicians often seek to profit from both sides in the conflict. Power brokers in these societies use a variety of strategies to play both sides, knowing that both offer rich rewards for cooperation and the richest person is the one who matters to both sides. Flexibility is gold in the lands in between.

2. There are so many terms (e.g., asymmetric warfare, full-spectrum conflict, irregular warfare) used to describe Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, with hybrid warfare being the most commonly used term. Is hybrid warfare a good or rather confusing term to apply while explaining Russia’s activities in Ukraine considering that Russia uses this term to describe Western actions against Russia and doesn’t apply it in its official terminology?

In social science, we try to use precise terms, with clear definitions. There is a proliferation of terms scholars have used for different aspects of hybrid war, but in general parlance, hybrid war is the most known and recognizable term. It describes the phenomenon I study, the broad array of mostly non-kinetic methods Russia has used to pursue its attack on the West. So, that is why I use it. Russia often sees everything completely the reverse as the West, so we are far from having a common language to talk about this subject. Or a common sense of reality.

3. Do you think Russia has in place an ongoing geopolitical neo-Eurasianism project to rebuild the Russian State within the boundaries of the Former Soviet Union? Did Russia use the neo-Eurasianism ideological concept to justify its incursion in Ukraine since 2014?

I think the underlying reason Russia invaded Ukraine is that Russia does not believe Ukraine is a sovereign state that is owed self-determination, despite the Belovezha accords. This is a perspective of the Cold War that is deeply embedded in Russia, which sees FSU republics as its own territory, a Russian world. It also has many adherents in the West who were more comfortable with the SU and didn’t have to know so many country names and cultures. I am not sure how much Eurasianism has to do with it. More a nostalgia or dysphoria about the loss of empire.

4. Will Zelensky be able to ensure effective reforms implementation moving Ukraine in a pro-Western direction towards the EU integration while also easing oligarchic rule in Ukraine?

Unfortunately, the oligarchic rule has proven to be endemic to Ukrainian politics since 1991, and I think it is overly optimistic to think that anyone President will get rid of it. I believe that Zelensky will try. He has already taken some important steps, like replacing most parliamentarians and setting new norms. He will continue to take steps, in my view, and may be less enmeshed than Poroshenko, but I don’t think he will be wholly successful, in part because of his close ties to Kolomoisky. Very little gets done in Ukraine without oligarchs. On the issues of Westernization, I think Zelensky is serious about continuing Ukraine’s Western drift, while also mending relations with Russia. Ukraine has a durable majority now that wants to join the West and will not be ignored. It also has a sizable minority that wants better relations with Russia. While some see it as contradictory, I believe there are ways to satisfy both sides, at least to a degree.

5. Do you think that a recently released transcript of a phone call between Zelensky and Trump damaged Zelensky’s reputation in the West? Could it have adverse implications for financial support from the EU? Will Zelensky have to repair some bridges with the country’s allies?

I think the phone call dramatically increased Z’s name recognition in the West and did not cast him in a bad light. He seemed like the one president on that call who was pursuing his country’s vital interests, while Trump illegally solicited his contribution to Trump’s election campaign. Ukraine has a dramatically increased profile in the West, though not all the attention is possible, it is seen by all sides as a very corrupt country and now a potential source of trouble. Among analysts and foreign policy thinkers, it is seen as a legitimate nation-state with a tough neighbor and a legitimate need for weapons and support. The phone call upped understanding and recognition of Ukraine and its issues.

6. Recently, Ukraine agreed to the so-called Steinmeier formula to kick-start settlement of the conflict in the Donbas region. What are Ukraine’s risks, and isn’t it taking place according to the Kremlin scenario?

It is hard for me to assess the importance of the S formula because, like everything in the Minsk agreements, there are widely different interpretations of what steps would have to be taken in what sequence, although the formula explicitly tries to address this, it is not entirely clear. Overall, I welcome Z’s attempt to negotiate and am not convinced of the powerful arguments of those who think he is selling out the country. Obviously, talking with the other side can be unpopular, but let’s see what comes of it before passing harsh judgment. I suspect it will be possible to tamp down the conflict, make people’s’ lives easier, without destroying Ukraine, and send a strong signal to pro-Russian Ukrainians that they have a part in the country’s future. Without, of course, fully resolving intractable conflict.

7. Overall, has Ukraine successfully combatted Russia’s information warfare and irregular warfare techniques since 2014? What could Ukraine improve to react to it more effectively?

I believe that Ukraine has made its case forcefully in the West. Even the spelling of Kyiv is gradually emerging as a preferred spelling. It started with the Maidan, where Ukraine’s stern defense of the EU as a liberation project has the courage to Europe as it was enduring a crisis of confidence in itself. Ukraine has proven itself to be a European nation and, I believe, is taken seriously in the West. And it takes itself seriously. Autocephalous was a big move. I see why many people appreciate Poroshenko; he took a number of actions that helped to establish the outlines of a Ukrainian nation. The current President has a different approach, one that seeks to reconcile the Western nationalist project with the existence of a loyal, Russian-oriented minority. That is equally an important project.

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