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Ukraine must resolve critical problems, appeal to all citizens

Updated: Nov 1, 2019

David R. Marples is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of twenty books on contemporary Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, including Lenin's Revolution: Russia 1917-1921 (2000) and The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991 (2004).

1. What do you think about Canada's military and political support to Ukraine? Is there room for improvement?

As a middle-ranking power, Canada is not in a position to offer major military support. Still, it has fulfilled an important role in advising and training Ukrainian troops who take part in the conflict in the Donbas. Politically, it has been very committed to Ukraine for the past decade, and this attitude is unlikely to change. Canada has been the most outspoken member of the G7 against Russia's return to the group. It has supported sanctions against Russia for its occupation of Crimea.

2. What is your opinion on de-communization in Ukraine? Has it been a failure or success?

I think the policy was a partial success in that it removed many symbolic relics of the old Soviet system, such as statues of Lenin and Communist symbols. This change was long overdue. It was less successful in its Memory Laws and the way it introduced alternatives to Communist ideology. Principally the National Institute of Remembrance tried to replace Communist symbols and ideology with a version of the nationalist ideology that was unpalatable to a majority of Ukrainian residents. It also engaged in a rewriting of history that did not permit discussion of controversial issues such as war crimes and collaboration in the Second World War. However, with the removal of Viatrovych as head on the Institute, there is every chance of it adopting a more moderate and inclusive approach to Ukraine's tragic past.

3. Do you think the Donbas war will be ended in the near future?

I think there is a reasonable chance of an agreement provided that there is a consensus in the country that President Zelensky's approach is—if not ideal—acceptable to most citizens. There is no chance of an outright military victory against separatist forces as long as they have the support of Russia. It would also be difficult to reach a solution without the participation of outside states, such as Germany and France. (Incidentally, I think there might be a role for Canada to play in this process.), and, one hopes, the United States. Any solution had to be a very tough compromise with amnesty for war crimes and concessions to the separatist regions. But these should not be territorial. Autonomy should be given to Luhansk and Donetsk, but elections should take place in all parts of these regions, including government-controlled areas, and they should occur after the removal of heavy weaponry and the sealing of the eastern border.

4. What are Russia's ultimate objectives in Ukraine?

It is not easy to discern the ultimate objectives. The essence of the Russian strategy seems to be to avoid large-scale commitment to the conflict but to ensure that the separatist regions are not overrun by the Ukrainian Army. In turn, Russia would like a government in Kyiv that does not harbor hopes of joining NATO or the European Union. For Russia, Ukraine is part of its security zone and tied to Russia through history, economy, and trade. That is not to say that Russia is totally opposed to Ukrainian independence; rather, it would prefer that Ukraine behave like Belarus, which carries out joint-military maneuvers and contains Russian military bases. I am not sure whether Russia's attitude would change if Putin were no longer president. I doubt it. It would be less aggressive, perhaps, but the long-term goals would be the same: maintain a close and watchful partnership with Ukraine and ensure its pro-Western direction is limited.

5. What should Ukrainian elites do to preserve and strengthen Ukraine's sovereignty?

I would suggest they support President Zelensky as well as the disarming of non-regular army forces such as Azov, C-14, and others, as well as strengthening the regular army. Also, they should support the retention of Ukraine in the borders of 1991, and as a state that recognizes the rights of all regions from the far west to the far east. The critical need is to restore and build the economy and to end hostilities in the east. Poroshenko lost his presidency because of his neglect of the day-to-day needs of people. On the European level, Ukraine became the poorest nation in 2018, exceeding in this category even Moldova. Ukraine also needs to work out its relationship with Russia and in what ways it is possible to limit Russian intervention without inviting outright hostility. Ideally, Ukraine would end enmity with Russia but increase its reliance on trade with the EU, refinement of some of its older industries, and ending or decreasing the levels of corruption. Corruption has been a plague on Ukrainian society, pervading every sector, from the legal system to the economy. It cannot be ignored any longer. Ironically, Poroshenko, the post-Maidan president, was a leading example of corruption at its worst. Currently, the main problem—not a new one—is Kolomoisky and his actual role in the new administration.

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