Andrew Wilson: “Russia has many other options for destabilizing Ukraine, that do not involve grabbing actual territory”

31 May 2019, 09:00

One of your books has a title “The UkrainiansUnexpected Nation”. It was written actually in 2000, almost twenty years ago. But now Ukraine faced some changes in its political situation. Do you find them also unexpected, or this is only a part of broader global trend?


– Well, I will try to answer this question in two points. Sorry about the long answer. Firstly, a little bit about the book itself. It could have been called “…The unexpected state”. Part of the story was about how Ukraine achieved independence, which came in a rush-not very much more than year and a half of very accelerated eventsin 1990-91. A lot of which by definition was a surprise to a lot of people. But I also meant that the cultural reality of a separate Ukrainian nationwas a surprise to many, at least in the West. While here in Ukraine, there were many layers of identity within newly-independent Ukraine. And the institutions of a state were then consolidated more quickly than a sense of a nation. So the second part of the answer could be the argument that Ukrainian nation-building began again in 2014. Althougha lot had happened between 1991 and 2014, revolution and war are great accelerators of nation building. And this war is lasting longer than the First World War in the West, whichwas famous for its consolidating effect on French or even Britishidentity. So you can definitely look on all events from 2014 in that frame. But a lot has changed in Russia also since 1991. Back then, Yeltsin’s Democratic Russia was in at least partial situational alliance with other Soviet republican nationalisms, despite post-imperial spasms like in August 1991. Russia was also relatively weak. Now Ukraine is facing a very different type of Russia. Then what ishappeningin Ukraine right now isboth global and specific to Ukraine.  There is a globalpopulist trend, but I don’t think that Zelenskiy is a populist. He is ananti-politician. One of his political slogans is “No political slogans”.


But this is also a global anti-establishment, anti-elite trend, like the yellow wests movement, Brexit…


– Definitely, yes. But what is different about Zelenskiy is his second slogan “No promises, no excuses”, which isn’t the same as thenormal populist recipe of promising everything. Brexit is all about promising. Unicorns, as we say – promising things that are actually impossible, magical. The second thing that is unique in Zelenskiy’scase is obviously the extent towhich he is playing his character, Holoborodko. You couldargue that Trump was also playing his character, called “Donald Trump The successful businessman”, which is a more radical fake than Holoborodko. So Zeleskiy is more of ananti-politician than he is a populist;but is an anti-establishment figure, of course. Appealing relatively to theEast, but with strong support throughout all Ukraine. So what he feels about national consolidation it is very interesting. We saw a high turnout overall in the first round of the election,but that was particularly concentrated in the big cities of East and South. Arguably Zelenskiyis thekind of figure who is a better fit for thenew identity politics in eastern and southern Ukraine since 2014. From that point of view, Zelenskiy might be non-accidental. He is a part of the changing mosaic of the Ukrainian regional and national identity culture.

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In your opinion how will the political situation develop after the elections?


– It is hard to answer. We are talking between the rounds. The opinion polls are predicting that Zelenskiy will win and they were pretty accurate about the first round. What kind of president will he be – I don’t know. There are some clues. He is starting to form a disperate team around himself, butthis process isn’tyetcomplete. So we need to find a little bit more about his team. His policies are sketchy.  He will be defined to some extent by histeam,which is currentlya coalition of old friends, people from Kvartal, some figures linked to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, but also possible to other oligarchs, media professionals, political technologists like Razumkov. After his strong win in thefirst round, more people will want to join his team. Too many Western commentators are only looking at the trio of Danilyuk-Abromavicius-Leschenko. Hopefully there will be broader team of reformers joining the team as a whole, but we don’t know yet.

But a more interesting basic question is “Do Zelenskiy’s voters want him to turn into a politician?” Perhaps President Zelenskiy will actually be a little bit like Trump– in thesense that Trump has not really beenan executive president.  Trump is lazy. His percentage of time spent actively in White House is amazingly low. He doesa lot of doing nothing, or carrying onhis own campaign, which he clearly enjoys. Zelenskiy is not lazy, but maybe he will also prefer to carry on with his show.So the question will be how much time he will spend acting as an executive president.


But USA has strong state institutions, which can operate even without president, not like in Ukraine.


– Obviouslyin a comparative sense that is true. Though Trump is testing the existing system of checks and balances, andis leaving lots of the bureaucracy empty and inactive. What could happen if Zelenskiy isprimarily a showman president – we don’t know. Poroshenko has been the opposite, a very active president in all areas. And that will be a dramatic change. So we don’t know and we will see. None of us know the full story here; we have not being told much about Zelenskiy – we know more about Holoborodko. It is hard to predict what might happen. Two key things are: the nature of coalition or team he builds around himself and the extent to which he becomes his own man, to which he grows intothe job of president. Unlike Trump, he might actually enjoy it.


Do you think the Crimea scenario with some occupation as a result of government crisis is possible after theseelections?


– Well, Ukrainians are right to always worry about this. Post-election protests are entirely possible, especially if Poroshenko continues to frame Zelenskiy in such a negativelight. But the bigger the gap will be, the less protest we will see. If your question is about particular regionsof Ukraine, we should remember exactly what happened back in 2014. There were two famous opinion polls about Crimea, where only 40% were for some kind of union or closer relations with Russia, and the Donbas (about 30%), and much lower throughouttherest of the country. So that was the baseline back then, but of course turning that into the actual annexation of Crimea and thewar in the Donbas-all the steps of escalation came from Russia. Russia was much less successful in other parts of the country. So there is nowhere in Ukraine today with that kind of baseline. So Russia can try to make trouble, like they try in Zakarpattya, but without much success. Plus another aspect ofwhat happened in 2014 – in Crimea Russia was lucky. Putin patronizingly congratulated Ukrainians on not fighting, because he was quite worried that they might. And if the West from the beginning had hada better understanding of what was actually happening, the story would have beenvery different. So anything that Russia in 2019 tried would be much riskier than in 2014. But of course Russia has many other options for destabilizing Ukraine,that do not involve grabbing actual territory.

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Talking about European vector of Ukraine. There is wide discussion of two options – to join EU at any cost, and then develop our country with their help or develop the country as much as possible and only then join the union with stronger position. What is the best way, on your opinion?


– You set an abstract choice, but there are existing agreements – the Association Agreement and DCFTA. Weare currently in the implementation phase. If Ukraine was “building up its own strength independently ”would it adopt the samerules and standards? Is there a way to build up economic strength without adopting a large proportion of EU requirements? Would this type of Ukraine be more protectionist, nurturing its “infant industries”? This is a controversial argument in economics. A lot of Ukraine’s industries are old not infant. Growth sectors like IT need the EU.

But there is also a political aspect to this question.

The one thing that Brexit teaches us is the opposite of what Brexit was supposed to achieve. Britain is not stronger on its own. Britain is weak and friendless and indanger of serious economic decline. And I think the same from the opposite perspective is true for Ukraine.  Whatever label is put on a policy, Ukraine needs trade with Europe and needs to use this as a foundation for security and solidarity relationships. Ukraine on its own, politically, economically and military – it is not really an option. The more you are knitted in this network of trade and solidarity the better off you are. Britain is moving in the opposite direction and we are suffering. Ukraine is at war, and needs alliances and friends. 


What can force West to deal harder against Russia?


– What we would like to happen is far from what is likely to happen. After Russia’s actions in the Sea of Azov, there was a weak push in the directionof extra sanctions, but without much result. In America skepticism about Russia is one thing that crosses party lines in Congress, but Trump seems likely to use the false claim that the Mueller Report exonerates him to take a softer line on Russia. In Europe we have EuroParliament elections coming up and a new European Commission as a result. Most probably, the new European Parliament will be a littlemore euro sceptical and softer on Russia. Though not as much as people think, again thanks to Brexit. Brexit has revived some pro-EU sentiment, even in Britain.

But there is also not enough force to push the sanctions back. Russia is well aware of the threshold that might encourage tougher western actions and they try to stay below it. And that threshold, as we can see unfortunately, is pretty high. Russia was able to get away with the de-facto militarization of the Sea of Azov. And we can see further steps possible coming elsewhere in the Black Sea. Which is a radical change of the military-strategic situationto Ukraine’s disadvantage.



Andrew Wilson was born in 1961 in Cumbria, United Kingdom. British historian and political scientist, professor in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. He is also a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Author of several books about Ukraine and political situation in Eastern Europe. 



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