Taras Kuzio on the Donetsk Airport, Naïvety of the West, and New Maidan

Taras Kuzio
Taras Kuzio in Slovyansk

New Pathway.

This is the second part of the interview with Taras Kuzio about his recently published book “Putin’s War Against Ukraine”. We asked Taras Kuzio what the solution could be to Russian aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas and Crimea. Taras Kuzio: “There is no quick solution: Ukraine will have to deal with this problem for many years and it will be a drain on its budget. Crimea is a big question too. Western governments view the Crimea in the same way they looked at the three Baltic States in the Cold War – they will not recognize this annexation but it will take a long time to resolve. There is unfortunately insufficient Ukrainian strategic thinking of how to cope with both problems. Time is pressing as Ukrainian soldiers do not like the current situation in the Donbas, where they are on the front lines like sitting targets. Ukrainian soldiers I talked to believe there are two choices, to forcibly retake the Donbas occupied territories or give them up and accept a new border. The danger is that Russia is encouraging its proxies to daily attack Ukrainian forces in order to provoke Ukraine to attack, similar to how Russian-backed South Ossetians provoked President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008, which would probably lead to an overt (not hybrid) Russian invasion. In this case, Ukraine would be blamed by the West for this action similar to how it turned against Saakashvili in 2008.”

Taras Kuzio last spoke to Ukrainian soldiers, including so-called Cyborgs who fought in the Donetsk Airport battle, in February: “Cyborgs who I met almost all were Russian speakers from the Zhytomyr-based Parachute Brigade which had proportionally high casualties. They made me think, why do we in the diaspora still only talk about Kruty in 1918, heroic as were the students, when we have the more recent Donetsk Airport? It’s as important as Kruty and in some ways a bigger episode in Ukrainian history because the Cyborgs were fighting the elite of the Russian army – marines and paratroopers, and yet they managed to hold the Airport for over a year. One Cyborg I met from Ivano-Frankivsk lost a leg and was fitted with an artificial one but he went back to the front and fought. Paratroopers are the toughest soldiers everywhere, they don’t retreat.”

The really big question is, does Ukraine want this territory back, Taras pondered because reoccupation would pose two major problems. The first would be expensive rebuilding of the region heavily damaged from war and reintegrating a hostile population. The second, Taras Kuzio said, is that“Half of the Donbas is now undergoing de-communization and Ukrainization in the Ukrainian-controlled part, and in the Donbas controlled by Russian proxies there is re-Sovietisation (even re-Stalinisation) and anti-Ukrainian xenophobia. The longer this conflict goes on unresolved, the less likelihood there will be that Ukraine will want to take this territory back. In 5-10 years those living under Russian proxies will hate Ukrainians even more and will be living in a mafia state twilight zone of de-industrialization.”

The above factors are further complicated by the weak position of the EU and the current and former US presidents. The West’s illusions about Russia and unwillingness to recognise that it had reverted to imperialism, only began to change in 2016 because of Russian interference, cyber-attacks and hacking in Europe and the US. This naivety and unwillingness to face the facts is difficult for many Ukrainians to comprehend. “We shouldn’t underestimate the very deep levels of naivety in the West that it would somehow be able to change Russia to make it more like us”, said Taras Kuzio. “There had been two failed attempts to reset the US-Russia relations under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and nevertheless Donald Trump believed he should try a third attempt. The EU was probably the most naïve of all and was so arrogant about its own attractiveness, it could not comprehend that not everybody wanted to be its member. They simply did not understand that for some people in the Donbas, Crimea, Belarus or Russia nostalgia for the Soviet Union (and its modern day reincarnations) is more attractive. Importantly, they never took Putin’s CIS Customs Union (Eurasian Union from 2015) seriously as a competitor to the EU. In 2010-2012, after the launch of its Eastern Partnership, the EU failed to appreciate that Putin began to view the EU enlargement in a hostile way, similar to how he has always viewed NATO. The Russian-Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014 came therefore as a complete shock to the EU.“

But how could Russian reality be news for Western academia? Taras Kuzio believes that the root causes of Russian aggression and anti-Western xenophobia, and its military aggression against Ukraine are often not properly understood or are downplayed in Western universities: “It’s similar to the situation with diplomats who live in a parallel world to that inhabited by normal human beings. Diplomats usually see what they want to see, not what the reality is. My best example is in 2010 when many Western governments wanted to see a different man in Viktor Yanukovych as somebody who had changed from the candidate in 2004 that tried to come to power through massive election fraud. I argued at the time that this was misplaced as he was the same mafia gangster, but I was in a minority until late 2011-2012. This kind of naïve liberalism and “we should give them the benefit of the doubt” position is conceptually wrong as it exports our world on to others, in this case that of the Donbas criminal clan, who cannot change, just as Putin will never change. They are too old to change and change is a sign of weakness for them. The only way you deal with the Putin’s, Yanukovych’s and other criminals is by being tough, which the EU and Obama could never do.”

With some academics, the problem is even more complicated, said Taras Kuzio: “There are surprisingly active Russophile and Putinophile academics, including quite a few at the University of Ottawa with such a political technologist (he cannot be described as a scholar) as Ivan Katchanovski who promotes a crazy conspiracy theory that the murders on the Euromaidan were done by the nationalist Pravyy Sektor (Right Sector) and not Yanukovych’s goons. Then there are the leftist Putinophiles, American Steve Cohen, editor of The Nation in New York and the British academic Richard Sakwa. For these left wing people, anti-Americanism translates into pro-putinism which is bizarre because why would a true socialist have anything to do with a fascist and mafia regime? They cannot be described as objective academics because their research is ideologically driven with the conclusion for the book written first and the facts assembled to back it up. When I began writing my book Putin’s War Against Ukraine I had no idea what my main argument and conclusion would be. Another reason why Russophile analysis of the war is prevalent is because all post-communist departments in Britain, Canada and the US are headed by Russian experts. They look at this region through the eyes of Moscow. In Sakwa’s book “Front Line Ukraine”, for example, all the footnotes are from sources in Russia and the only footnotes he has from Ukraine are 15 citations from the Kyiv Post. If a student submitted a PhD or an essay with such poor sources I would give it a fail.”

Ukraine’s unreformed economy and government are not helping either, said Taras Kuzio: “The ruling class, including President Petro Poroshenko, are afraid of rule of law reforms and those that fight corruption because they fear change and accountability. They don’t know how to escape from the 1990s Wild West capitalism as they are all interconnected through kompromat. They all have something on each other and are all afraid of a scenario of “If I put him in jail, he will release kompromat on me.” Political tension is high in Ukraine because there is a lot of information in the media about high level abuse of office and corruption but then nobody is criminally charged and goes to jail. Ukrainians are more politically mature than their so-called ruling elites and more politically astute than average Canadians and especially Americans.”

It’s a big question, what this political tension will lead to. Taras Kuzio believes that “a third Maidan” is now one of the biggest threats for Ukraine because up to 20% of voters are veterans or the families of veterans: “There are weapons available and there are soldiers and veterans who have seen their friends wounded or killed. But, a new Maidan would work in Putin’s favor. By not implementing the values of the Euromaidan and bringing justice to Ukraine, Poroshenko is contributing to maintaining high levels of political tension in Ukrainian society. A sign that he is afraid of change is in the recent changes to the law, which demand that NGOs submit declarations for taxes, which is a way to repress NGOs fighting corruption.”

Is there any hope for a new generation of politicians? Not at the moment, according to Taras Kuzio: “What is surprising is that there are no young leaders emerging. Ukraine is into its third year after the Euromaidan and the war, and yet the only political leaders that remain visible are Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. Saaakashvili’s new political movement will most likely elect members in the next parliamentary elections but he could never become Ukrainian President. It’s very difficult to break through into the Ukrainian ruling elites because of the byzantine nature of Ukrainian politics and because you need resources which in Ukraine are only available from oligarchs.”

Taras Kuzio is not expecting pre-term parliamentary or presidential elections: “Poroshenko would never agree to them. What is surprising is that Poroshenko is convinced for some reason that he will win a second term which I don’t think is possible. He would like to repeat Ukraine’s 1999 elections when Leonid Kuchma faced Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko but Poroshenko would face pro-Russian Opposition Bloc leader Yuriy Boyko. Boyko like Symonenko would be a fake candidate who never intended to win. Yanukovych planned to win the 2015 elections in a similar manner by ensuring he faced the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party leader in the second round.

In the end, some optimism from Taras Kuzio: “But, there are two years before the elections, so there is still time. If Poroshenko faces a new leader, rather than staging a rerun of 1999, he will be unable to win the election.”