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On Ukraine’s war with Russia and relations with the West

Professor Paul D’Anieri is an expert on Eastern European and post-Soviet politics. He is author of Understanding Ukrainian Politics: Power, Politics and Institutional Design (M.E. Sharpe, 2007) and International Politics: Power and Purpose in Global Affairs (Cengage, 2017), now in its fourth edition. His research has appeared in Comparative Politics, East European Politics and Societies, and Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics.

1. Your book called "Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War" is about to be released this month. 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 book points to the long-term sources of the war with Russia. Russia never accepted the loss of Ukraine and worked for many years to bring Ukraine, and Crimea in particular, back under Russian control. An important lesson is that we cannot assume that when Putin eventually leaves office, Russian foreign policy will suddenly change. A second lesson for Ukraine is that Ukraine's lack of domestic reform has been a major source of its national insecurity.

2. Ukraine has had all prerequisites for economic growth (e.g., people's capital, abundant natural resources, strong science research base) and was ahead of many Eastern European nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Why our political elites have failed so badly to transform our country into a prosperous one in almost three decades?

Explaining that would require another book. One can point to three broad problems. First, Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union very stable patterns of informal patronage politics that resisted reform. Second, many elites have benefitted immensely from the status quo of a partially reformed government and economy. Third, some important reforms (such a freeing energy prices) are unpopular with voters.

3. How would you assess Zelensky's performance so far? Do you think he will be able to initiate a move away from an oligarchic-state model towards a more inclusive and democratic society?

It is hard to gauge Zelensky's commitment to genuine reform. Progress on land reform is a good sign, but the role that Ihor Kolomoisky and people connected to him are playing is not. As I noted above, there are powerful constraints on reform, even if the President were committed to it. Any significant reform will encounter substantial resistance or require the alteration of entrenched practices.

4. Is there a chance to end the war in the Donbas region in light of recent developments?

There is a chance, but it still appears that Russian and Ukrainian conditions for ending the war are incompatible with one another. If the war ends, it will be because Europe pressures Ukraine to end the war on Russian terms.

5. In your book called "The Sources of Russia's Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order," you touch upon the wide range of 'hybrid' tactics that Russia applied in Ukraine. Has Ukraine combatted them successfully since 2014? What steps should it take to counteract them more effectively?

Ukraine and others have stepped up responses to Russia's information warfare, and Ukraine has strengthened its armed forces so that it would be harder for a "little green men" operation like that of 2014 to succeed. At the same time, corruption means that external actors such as Russia have relatively easy means of gaining influence inside the Ukrainian elite.

6. Is it possible to say there is some agreement between Kremlin and Washington that Ukraine goes into the sphere of influence of Russia?

This depends very much on what one means by "Washington." There are some signs that President Trump would like to cede Ukraine to a Russian sphere of influence, but one of the few things that congressional Democrats and Republicans agree on is that Russia is a threat to the US and that the US should support Ukraine. This position also has bipartisan support among the national security and foreign policy elite.

7. Do you think Ukraine missed its chance to join NATO and the EU in the early 2000s? Will the Kremlin continue to sabotage Ukraine's closer relations with the West and try to get it under its sphere of influence?

I do not believe that Ukraine had much of a chance to join NATO in the 2000s, though it is hard to speculate on what might have happened had Ukraine pursued reform decisively after the Orange Revolution. There was always strong opposition, especially in France and Germany, and even the Bush administration in the US was divided. Ukraine's options are still fluid today: rapid reform will help open up avenues to closer cooperation with the West, while more talk with little real change will empower those in the West who advocate giving up on Ukraine.

Russia will continue to pursue its long-term goal of regaining control over Ukraine, either informally through a "sphere of influence" or more formally through some sort of unification process. In order to pursue that goal, Russia will seek to undermine Ukraine's relations with the West. At times it appears that they do not need much help.

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