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Media Call: What's Next for Ukraine?

Speakers: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, Alexander Motyl, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University, Newark, and Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org
February 21, 2014
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have all of our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Robert McMahon. Mr. McMahon, you may begin.

MCMAHON: Well, welcome, everyone, to this Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record media call, "The Crisis in Ukraine." I'm Robert McMahon, editor of CFR.org, and I'm going to be discussing the latest stunning turn of events with Stephen Sestanovich, who is CFR's senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies and the author of the new book "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama." And also, we have Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, and a regular contributor to Foreign Affairs, as well.

I will be asking a few questions of both Stephen and Alexander before opening the call to questions from you on the line. And I want to dive right in and have both of them kind of take -- take a look at what's just happened. There's a reported agreement between -- reported agreement involving President Victor Yanukovych and the leading opposition figures to offer early presidential elections, a national unity government, and a constitutional change to reduce presidential powers.

Initial reports are that the opposition forces who are gathered in Kiev's main square might be receptive. Still not clear if this is going to hold. And so I want to kick off with Steve first and then Alex to talk about how we should read this latest turn of events. Steve, could you please give us a sense of how to read this?

SESTANOVICH: Sure. And, you know, as you said, Bob, this is a kind of fast-moving picture. There have already been some things that have happened even a little bit beyond what you've just described. There is the agreement that the president and the opposition leader signed.

There also has been an approval by the council of protesters, some stating some conditions for the approval of it, including that the new government not include the interior minister or the prosecutor general. There has been action by parliament to restore the 2004 constitution, which reduces presidential powers and a full amnesty for, you know, all cases since the beginning of these demonstrations three months ago today, I guess we're talking about.

MCMAHON: So -- but not a timing -- but no sort of timeframe provided as of yet?

SESTANOVICH: I don't know that they have talked about any specific -- I don't think they set elections, but the agreement does provide for a timeframe of presidential elections within -- between September and December of 2014, I think. We're all picking up, you know, fragmentary information here and there.

There's a lot to talk about here. Let me just say one -- sort of put this in a slightly bigger context. This has been a shocking set of developments for anybody who's watched Ukraine over the years, because in the past three months, you've seen a steady escalation of the confrontation between the opposition and the government and a real mass mobilization that has been persistent over a long period of time. This is -- we haven't seen anything like this in the former Soviet Union in 20-plus years, either the persistence of protest or the use of force on this scale. You know, you can -- you could quibble about Uzbekistan. But -- and you've seen open Russian appeals to use force and a radicalization of the movements on the ground.

But one of the things that's happened just even in the past 24 hours has been a kind of reassertion of some of those things that we have tended to count on, pressures to de-escalate. You've seen the government unity fraying as it became more repressive and isolated, so that you had factions of the Party of Regions government defecting in the past couple of days, the mayor of Kiev resigning, lots of deputies seeming to go over to the opposition.

You've had -- even with reports of violent groups in -- you know, in the Maidan protests, you've had the council of protesters sort of supporting a deal that de-escalates and that compromises. You've seen a kind of reassertion of Europe's influence seemingly at the expense of Russia.

So why don't I just stop with that, let Alex come in, and then we can just have a conversation?

MCMAHON: So, Alex, yes, could you give your readout? And maybe adding to what Steve said, in terms of some of these stunning turnabouts, maybe mention the oligarchs' role in all this.

MOTYL: Sure. Let me start with the first point, namely Yanukovych is finished. The fact that he signed this particular deal is interesting, but essentially it's just a way out for him. It's a way for him to save some face and possibly save his life.

What is really important is that, A, he has lost control of the country. I mean, virtually two-thirds of the provinces have already rebelled against him. The internal forces, the security troops have been withdrawn from Kiev. There have been mass defections within the Party of Regions. And most important, perhaps, is the fact that just today, the parliament overwhelmingly passed -- overwhelmingly adopted the constitution of 2004. There were 386 votes for. Of those 386 votes, all of the opposition, obviously, voted for it, but that also included 140 members of the Party of Regions and 32 members of the Communists. They're obviously doing this not because they want to, but because they're trying to save their skins.

There have been massive evacuations and fleeings by Party of Regions people from Kiev to outlying regions. There was even a -- there was a good report suggesting that the flights began on Tuesday when a plane load of these deputies apparently left for Europe.

The point, in other words, is, is that Yanukovych is finished and that the power balance has shifted to the parliament, which is now entitled and empowered to appoint a cabinet on its own. Yanukovych is simply kind of the window dressing at this particular point in time.

This also means that the regime, the regime that he constructed over the last three years, is pretty much done with, as well. Now, we'll see how that plays out in the future, because some of these elites are not going away, including the individuals you mentioned, namely the oligarchs, who've been supporting him so far, but at least within the last few days appear to have shifted in opposition to him.

As you -- as many of you probably know, the oligarchs control something like 80 percent to 85 percent of Ukraine's GDP, so whatever the disposition of the new government, they -- it will obviously have to deal with them, and it will obviously have to bring them onboard. My suspicion is that that will, indeed, take place.

These recent events also mean that the Party of Regions is fundamentally spent as a political force. I think we can expect it to collapse within the next few weeks or months and perhaps be replaced by some kind of more moderate institution or organization.

But that means that the power base, the individuals within the government and the institutions -- excuse me, within the regime and the institutions with the regime that have supported Yanukovych have all melted away. He is on his own. He's stuck in his office, in the presidential administration. He's surrounded by these huge cement blocks. And the only protection he has at this point in time is the ALFA antiterrorist unit of the security service. Everybody else has gone away. All of the other security forces have left Kiev. And the downtown area, as well as Kiev in general, is now essentially occupied by democratic demonstrators and the population in general, which is just walking about and celebrating what clearly appears to be its victory.

This means -- and here let me just step back -- as Steve suggested, this means, I think, that Ukraine is finally on the verge of leaving the Soviet Union. Most of the other countries -- at least those within, you know, the Balts and some of the others -- and certainly the East-Central Europeans -- were able to leave the Soviet sphere of influence in 1989-1991. Ukraine, like many of the other post-Soviet states further east, was stuck with these very heavy Soviet legacies that continued to impede reform and lead to the kinds of authoritarian outcomes that we've seen across the board.

The Party of Regions and the Communist Party were the last, as it were, repositories of these Soviet-type legacies. With their collapse and with the collapse of the Yanukovych regime, Ukraine can finally make some kind of progress.

Now, that said, the obstacles to an easy transition are enormous. They're political. They're economic. Corruption is enormous. They're social. They're cultural. But for the first time in a long time -- and certainly for the first time in three years -- Ukraine actually has hope.

MCMAHON: So I'm going to follow up quickly with a few things you said, Alex, and then I also want to ask Steve to follow up something especially related to the international response, but, Alex, on the "Yanukovych is finished" side of the coin, so if he's finished and the country moves swiftly to some sort of national unity government, how are we to understand how this parliament could -- could help be the driving force or the force -- the organ around which the country coalesces? I mean, this is a parliament that has been, until very recently, known for fist fights and -- you know, and sort of dissembling. What are we to think about who can step in to kind of steer this very fragile country at this point?

MOTYL: Well, in terms of the parliament, remember, the democratic opposition, which consists of roughly 170 or so individuals within the parliament, maybe a little more, they're pretty much united on what they want, so they've been -- you know, the -- you know, disagreements are likely to emerge in the months ahead, but at least for the time being, they know what they want. They want to get rid of Yanukovych, they want to move toward Europe, they want to sign the association agreement, and so on.

In the meantime, the obstructionist elements -- that is, say, the Party of Regions and the Communists -- they, of course, can't be trusted. I mean, I wouldn't trust them any further than I can throw Yanukovych. But the bottom line is, these individuals who voted for the constitutional changes are, frankly, terrified for their lives. It's no longer a question of being terrified for their careers; it's their lives. They know very well that, if they don't switch in time, that they are likely to meet very sad fates.

I mean, the people in the country are absolutely livid by the three years of humiliation that they've had to endure, and especially by the -- you know, the events of the last few days. So it's no surprise that all of these Regions individuals are bailing ship. I mean, they know that their own physical survival is on the line.

Now, the next question is, as you said, well, who's likely to emerge as the leader? There are several possibilities. I mean, there are the -- there is that trio, and as much as Yatsenyuk, Klitchko, and Tyahnybok, the only two frontrunners within that -- the only two realistic ones are Yatsenyuk and Klitchko, they've been criticized for being too moderate. Arguably, they might claim that their moderation has saved the day and that ultimately has resulted in victory.

We can certainly expect Yulia Tymoshenko's release within the next few days, or possibly the next few weeks, and it'll be interesting to see what she does. I mean, she's been known as a firebrand, but the things that she's been saying over the last year-and-a-half of her imprisonment have actually been fairly moderate, level-headed, and suggests that she may actually be able to play more of a unifying than a disunifying role.

And then, last but not least, there is an oligarch who sided with the Euro revolution almost from the beginning. He's the so-called Chocolate King, Petro Poroshenko, who's been supportive of the revolution, who's been on the Maidan even during these bloody events, and who has a fair amount of popularity. There was a public opinion poll a few weeks ago that suggested that if he were to run for president against Yanukovych, he'd beat him something like 65 percent to 35 percent. At this point in time, Yanukovych would be lucky to get a third of those 35 percent.

So there are possibilities. And there are likely to be disagreements, but I suspect those disagreements are likely to emerge later on, not quite at this particular juncture, where there seems to be an understanding on the part of the opposition that they have to go westwards, that they have to include Europe somehow or other in the process, and ultimately that they have no alternative to some form of cooperation.

The difference between now and 2004, when the Orange Revolutionaries came into power, is that then no one really knew what to do. Now they know that if they don't get their act together, the alternative may be the collapse of the country.

MCMAHON: OK. Steve Sestanovich, the deal that was announced today was said to be brokered by Russian and E.U. representatives. Are we to believe that there might be Russian and E.U. cooperation going forward? Or is that pretty much ended at this point? How can we view the Russian -- the push-pull involving Russia and E.U. influence?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, the Russian influence is pretty interesting here. You know, Kiev is awash with rumors about Russian snipers who were responsible for some of the deaths on Thursday. On the other hand, you had President Putin appointing Vladimir Lukin, who was the human rights ombudsman, as his envoy and who has some credibility as a -- you know, as an honest-to-god democrat in pursuing the kind of deal that ultimately emerged, but he didn't sign it, left Kiev apparently without having signed it, maybe didn't have instructions to do so or authority to do so, or maybe Moscow opposed it.

We're going to find out a little bit more about that. There have been questions about whether Russia would continue any of its aid to the -- that it announced a couple of months back as part of the $15 billion package that Putin put on the table.

So there are a lot of questions about the Russian role. Some of the opposition leaders, Yatsenyuk in particular, said they were disappointed by the Russians' distancing of themselves from the agreement and wondered what it meant and are obviously a little nervous that this may mean some kind of discord going forward.

The Europeans have been taking the lead here. They plainly played the more important role in brokering the deal between Yanukovych and the opposition, although that deal was almost inevitable, given what happened yesterday. I completely agree with Alex Motyl about the devastating impact that that had on Yanukovych's standing.

The burden of proof going forward is probably going to be more on the West, on the European Central Bank, on the IMF, on the U.S. and E.U. governments that have until now not offered any new ideas for how to help a new government succeed, not since the breakdown of the discussions about an association agreement.

And while that has had a certain logic since Yanukovych stepped back from the deal, now the question will be to European and American leaders -- and finance leaders, in particular -- you know, finance ministers and the secretary of the treasury will be now getting more involved. The question is going to be, what is it that they can do to help a reformist Ukrainian government avert bankruptcy? Because bankruptcy is ahead for Ukraine without some action. They were in bad shape at the end of last year, and three months of revolution have not done a whole lot for their credit rating or their GDP prospects. I think that will, in addition to sorting out a political formula that will create a viable government, that the issue of the economic formula going forward for Ukraine will come to the fore.

MCMAHON: Thank you both for framing this. I'd like to open the call up to those on the line now. And I want to remind everyone, this is an on-the-record media call from the Council on Foreign Relations with Steve Sestanovich, CFR senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies, and Alex Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark. We're talking Ukraine.

Operator, can you -- are there any questions on the line right now?

OPERATOR: OK, yes, sir. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. If any time you would like to remove yourself from the question in queue, just press star, two. Please limit your questions to one at a time. Again, to ask a question, please press star, one.

OK. Our first question comes from Margaret Warner with "PBS NewsHour."

QUESTION: Hi, gentlemen. Thanks for doing this. What effect do you think that the sanctions that the U.S. opposed, albeit limited a month or so ago, had on the outcome, and then the belated, very belated sanctions by the Europeans yesterday? And what are the options facing the U.S. now?

MCMAHON: Steve, do you want to start with that?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think the sort of building pressure from the U.S. and the E.U. had a -- you know, a -- I don't want to exaggerate -- had a measurable, but not major effect on the credibility of the government. It indicated that there was no patience in Europe and in Washington for the kinds of repression that the -- that the Yanukovych government was trying to put forward.

The -- at every step of the way, though, it was Yanukovych and his team that mismanaged this crisis. I mean, they really did this, I would say, all on their own. This was a totally blundering response to a crisis in the capital -- capital city and then, of course, a crisis that spread across the country.

I think the Europeans have -- and the U.S. to some extent overestimated their influence from the beginning, that that Ukraine would fall into their lap, would be ready for association, and weren't really prepared for the Russian push-back. But they slowly got their act together and became more effective, and I think their readiness to send mediators as the crisis developed turned out to be pretty important.

MCMAHON: Alex, anything to add to that?

MOTYL: Just very briefly, I do think that the European Union's decision to impose financial sanctions, sanctions on the bank holdings, the assets that the members of the regime have in Europe, that probably put the fear of God into someone like Yanukovych, because that hits these individuals where they -- where it hurts.

Remember that the Yanukovych family, his inner circle, essentially embezzled, according to Anders Aslund, roughly $10 billion to $13 billion over the last three years. And most of that money is sitting some place in European banks.

MCMAHON: Thank you. Thank you, Margaret, for that question.

Operator, do we have another question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Martin Bercharis (ph) with Newspaper Information (ph).

QUESTION: Yes, hi. I have a question about Putin. I wonder whether this is a defeat for Putin, and if you can just address to what extent he was able to -- to run the show until a couple of days ago in Ukraine. And what does this mean in terms of the reset of the U.S.-Russian relations?

MCMAHON: Steve, please take a crack at that.

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think it's clearly a set back for Putin. He thought that he had carried the day with his -- you know, the package that he put forward for assistance, even though it was largely unconditional. He thought that was going to lead to a dissipation of the protests and the opposition.

It was a bit of a setback when he then had to suspend it. It looked as though he and Yanukovych were not really in sync. And in the past couple of days, their position has utterly dissolved. The Russians have been egging on the regime, calling for a restoration of order, insisting, you know -- the unhappy term that Medvedev used was they needed to have a government that wasn't just a doormat.

But this government presented itself to the people in a way that was really devastating for their credibility. They were at once brutal and weak. So they outraged the population without intimidating them. And the result of that was an escalating anger against the regime that Putin's appeals to -- for a crackdown could do nothing to solve. At the end of this story, the Russians really didn't have very much to offer their clients. And the result is what we see.

QUESTION: And what about...

MCMAHON: Steve, is -- sorry, is it premature to say...

SESTANOVICH: Oh, impact on the reset. Well, I would say the reset has been kind of troubled on a number of fronts. Over the past 10 days, American officials have been criticizing Russian handling of Syria. Now there are probably going to be some extra complaints about the Russian approach to Ukraine.

MCMAHON: It's interesting. These two countries are going to have to get together in the Security Council to talk about Syria today while this is all going on. It's going to be interesting atmospherics, I would say.

MOTYL: Can I chime in?

MCMAHON: Actually, I'd like Alex to add in. Yes, please, Alex.

MOTYL: Very briefly, I'd like to go a little bit further in criticizing Putin. I would suggest what Putin has committed was in the last three months vis-a-vis Ukraine, both in -- both in coercing or encouraging Yanukovych not to sign the association agreement and then in cracking down -- I mean, he's revealed a remarkable capacity for strategic mistakes. I mean, this is simply unforgivable. For a man who's supposed to be a kind of Bismarckian, you know, geopolitical genius, this bespeaks a complete ignorance and misunderstanding of Ukrainian realities and of Ukrainian politics, as well as economics.

And what's very interesting here is that, the first time Putin committed such egregious mistakes vis-a-vis Ukraine was during the Orange Revolution in 2004, where, again, he totally miscalculated, supported the falsification of the elections, and supported Yanukovych. This suggests that this is an individual, Putin, namely, who simply does not get Ukraine.

SESTANOVICH: Can I add one thing to that? Because I think...

MCMAHON: Yes.

SESTANOVICH: ... Alex makes a very important point by referring us back to the Orange Revolution. An awful lot of what Putin has done in the past 10 years is his response to the Orange Revolution. It suggested to him the need for a stronger state, a more robust and forceful policy of repressing opposition, and he has been extremely reluctant to make any kinds of concessions since then that put Russia on a more democratic track.

The question now, I think, is going to be, how does he read what's happened in Kiev this time? And does he construe it in the same way that it requires him to lean toward more repression? Or does it serve as a kind of wake-up call that this kind of policy that he's been following isn't working?

We don't know the answer to that yet. Putin's biography suggests that his answer will not be to conciliate. But, you know, at a certain point, you've got to, you know, wake up and read the facts on the ground as they are. This must be a very sobering set of events for him.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question. Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Inga Czerny with Polish Press Agency.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you. Hello. I would like to ask about the role of the European minister mediation. Especially, how do you assess the role of Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in negotiations? Thank you.

MCMAHON: Alex, do you want to take that one first?

MOTYL: Well, I mean, based on what we know, which is essentially, you know, the press releases that have come out, the Europeans seem to have done a fairly adequate job. I mean, they came in yesterday. They started the negotiations. There were some setbacks. They persisted.

I'm assuming that they twisted arms and they talked about sanctions and they talked about the impermissibility of bloodshed. And at the end of the day, they did come up with this agreement, which -- despite my belief that it's fundamentally irrelevant to what's going on, on the ground -- is nevertheless a very important symbolic step.

And within that group, I have no doubt personally that Mr. Sikorski has been playing a key role, as, of course, has been Poland. I mean, Poland's role in the events of the last three -- well, three years, actually, but certainly within the last three months has been exemplary. The Polish government, various Polish spokesmen, and, of course, various members of Polish civil society have explicitly supported the revolutionaries and the various demands for democratization of the regime.

And I think that was actually very central to both maintaining the morale of the demonstrators and at the same time was not insignificant in moving various European policymakers in the direction of eventually adopting sanctions and playing a more proactive role within the Ukrainian crisis.

MCMAHON: Thanks. Steve, do you want to add anything?

SESTANOVICH: Can I add -- can I add one thing to this? Yes. I believe the Polish role has been very constructive, as it has been for many years in Ukraine. I'd remind you that, in the Orange Revolution, two European leaders showed up in Kiev to try to promote a peaceful outcome, and that -- and they were President Kwasniewski and Javier Solana. So the Poles have been on the front lines in Ukraine for a long time.

But I think it's important not to exaggerate this impact and -- you know, in the way that, for example, President Putin will. For President Putin, it is very tempting always to say that these events are the result of foreign interference and conspiracies, and they quickly start talking about the Roman Catholic Church, the pope, the CIA, as though nothing would have happened in Ukraine without foreign interference.

In reality, the E.U. foreign ministers who showed up yesterday were arriving at a moment where the tide had really turned against Yanukovych, and I think they played a very helpful role to, you know, get him to do the right thing, but the right thing was essentially the inevitable thing. And I think it is -- it was -- it was Ukrainian protesters who created that situation and Yanukovych's own horrendous mistakes.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question. Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Ani Sandu with the Romanian Public Radio.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing the call. My question was related -- and in a large part to what Inga asked before -- I'm wondering if you have anything else to comment on that, because I wanted to ask you about the contribution you thought that you think that countries like Poland and Romania, which neighbor Ukraine, have in solving this conflict. And I mentioned in Romania also, because White House announced that Vice President Joe Biden had recent phone calls both with leaders from Poland and from Romania.

MCMAHON: So, Steve, is there a bigger regional role that can be had here? Or is it still -- it's still major bloc, you know, E.U., U.S., and Russia that are the big players here?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think within the E.U. -- and Alex can probably add to this -- the countries that have been Ukraine's neighbors have played the largest role. The E.U. as a role has discovered that it has enormous powers of magnetic attraction in Ukraine, but in a daily way, those powers are exercised by the countries that are right at hand, that have been able to move forward, that interact with Ukraine and Ukrainian society, in a daily way. That means, of course, that Baltic states, Poland, Romania, I think that it's a -- it's a combination of very, very strong regional interest in Ukraine's future and then, of course, the institutional mechanisms of the E.U.

MCMAHON: Thanks. Alex, anything to add?

MOTYL: Brief comment. I think that the role of countries such as Romania, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, possibly the Czech Republic, could actually be extremely important in these coming months. These are countries that experienced Soviet domination. These are countries that experienced Communist systems of rule. These are countries that understand Ukraine and its current dilemmas far better than many countries in Central and Western Europe, that is to say, further to the west of them. In a way, they still speak a common language. They understand the problems and, very importantly, they can actually offer certain kinds of solutions.

I think the trust on the part of the Ukrainian democratic opposition towards these countries is very high. There's been a certain crumbling of trust towards the Germans and the French, but there's a lot of trust and there's a lot of respect for the Eastern and Central Europeans.

And if these -- you know, if the East-Central Europeans assist with talk with the Ukrainians in the coming months, they can, I think, play a significant policy role.

SESTANOVICH: Bob, the phrase "assist with talk" obliges me to add one further comment, which is the countries that we've been talking about who are Ukraine's neighbors do have a real understanding of Ukraine's situation, but they don't have the resources. They are not the powers within the European Central Bank. They have less influence, I would say, in putting together the kind of arrangements that will help a new government succeed.

And so for that purpose, the -- the eastern members of the E.U. tend -- need to be able to exercise some influence over the western members of the E.U., so that the overall policy toward Ukraine is one not just of talk, but of resources.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question. Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from James Gibney with Bloomberg View.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks very much for doing the call, Steve and Alex. I wonder, Alex -- excuse me, Steve, if you could expand on that point you just made about resources and things like that. You know, what -- what are you -- what would you be looking for, the ECB or the U.S. Treasury or the IMF, to do vis-a-vis Ukraine?

(CROSSTALK)

MOTYL: This is -- oh, yeah, sorry. Sorry, go ahead, Steve.

SESTANOVICH: You know, I don't want to give you a really precise answer, because it's really beyond my competence. I think it's the kind of package that the E.U. has been devising for troubled countries in its south. The -- if you think about the Greek economy and the Ukrainian economy, there are going to be some overlaps in the kinds of needs that -- that the -- that Ukraine has.

The IMF has over the past 20 years sent its senior people to Kiev many times, and they've sort of stopped going because they've been exasperated by what they've heard there. But a new government could be able to speak to them with a credibility that they can move forward if the fund can move forward.

So I'm not giving you a detailed answer, because I just don't want to, you know, send you in the wrong direction, but I do think this is the story for the next phase of Ukraine's evolution.

QUESTION: Got it.

MCMAHON: Alex, would you like to add to that?

MOTYL: I quite agree.

MCMAHON: OK. And we expect to have more on our website, by the way, on this very question, and our colleague, Robert Kahn, is going to be blogging on this today -- this very point today, so watch this space. But, meanwhile, Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Elizabeth Pond with World Policy Journal.

QUESTION: Hello. I'd like to ask if the caretaker government will have enough authority to sign the agreement with -- the association agreement with the European Union or if that will require the elections that are brought forward to the end of this year?

MCMAHON: So, Steve, a question on the sequencing, perhaps.

SESTANOVICH: It's a great question, and I just don't know the answer as to what the -- we don't know what the composition of a coalition government is going to be. I think the agreement called for the formation of such a government within 10 days, if I'm not mistaken. What its mandate will be, what its authority, what its composition will be, I just don't know. Alex?

MOTYL: I'm inclined to be optimistic on this score. Whatever government emerges is going to be dominated by the democratic opposition and with a bunch of sort of reformist-leaning members of the Regions Party. So -- and the democratic opposition had been insisting for the last three months that one of their priorities, one of their immediate priorities is signing the association agreement.

So the government will be empowered by the constitution to do these sorts of things. It will certainly have the support of a very significant percentage of the total population. Those individuals who might be skittish about this kind of agreement are either terrified or in hiding or in any case will be disinclined to voice their opinions in any public fashion. So my guess is that this will be one of the very first things that they will want to sign and that they will sign.

MCMAHON: So, Alex, just to press on that a little bit, what timeframe do you envision this happening, within...

MOTYL: Well, let's assume that there's a coalition government, you know, within 10 days, you know, a week from now or thereabouts. If the Europeans are willing to sign, as well -- I mean, that's perhaps a question mark -- although they've said they would be, I wouldn't be surprised if this was done within the -- you know, within a week of the formation of a new government.

SESTANOVICH: One of the people to watch here is Serhiy Tihipko, who is -- who was yesterday announced -- announced himself as the leader of a faction breaking with the Party of Regions, who's a former kind of senior economic policymaker in, you know, many of the governments of the -- the non-Orange governments of the past, who's obviously putting distance between himself and Yanukovych, but now also in a position to emerge as a kind of policy spokesman for the reformist bloc of the Party of Regions. You know, that -- he's the kind of person who could give some credibility to a coalition government, national unity government.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question, Elizabeth. And I want to remind those on the call, this is a Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record media call on the situation in Ukraine. And our experts are Stephen Sestanovich, CFR's senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies, and the author of the new book, "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama," and Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark.

Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Ilya Baranikas with MK Daily Russia. And I apologize for the mispronunciation.

QUESTION: No, there was no mispronunciation. Ilya Baranikas, Moskovsky Komsomolets. My question is, what are your views regarding Ukraine's chances of survival as a unified state? Because to many outside observers, it looks like a country consisting of two irreconcilable territorial entities. Thank you.

MCMAHON: Steve, please start with that one.

SESTANOVICH: Actually, I want to hear what Alex says about that.

MCMAHON: OK. Alex, please take over.

SESTANOVICH: He's written about that just in the past week about the prospect of Ukraine breaking up, so he's the man who's got that answer ready.

MOTYL: And I've just finished -- I've just finished another analytics piece on that. This image of Ukraine as consisting of two, quote, "irreconcilable halves," is, frankly, at best overstated, at worst borders on nonsensical.

It is clearly the case that if you go all the way to the west and then you go to all the way to the east, you'll find very different countries, both in terms of language, culture, political preferences, and so on. But with this irreconcilability paradigm completely overlooks is that there are continual gradations from the far east to the far west, both in terms of language preference, both in terms of political preference, both in terms of cultural preference, and so on.

So is the country -- does the country consist of different parts with different groupings of individual who have different views and things? Of course it does, which is to say it's a pretty diverse and pluralistic place, which is probably no more diverse and pluralistic than just about any other more or less developed country in the world. We don't generally suggest that just because a country is divided into red and blue states that it's on the verge of some kind of partition or collapse.

Now, in addition to that, there are two things to keep in mind. The only regions that might -- at least -- I mean, whose populations might be inclined to vote for some kind of succession are in Luhansk, far east, Donetsk, who is Yanukovych's stronghold, and the Crimea.

Luhansk and Donetsk are the Ukrainian rust belt. They're dominated by the Party of Regions, at least thus far, and they're dominated by Ukraine's richest tycoon, a man by the name of Rinat Akhmetov, who's interests lie almost exclusively in the West. That is to say, although there may be secessionist sympathies within some segments of the population in these two regions, the sentiments on the part of the political and economic elites are against secession. I wouldn't bet on it at all.

Then we get to the Crimea, which is also not quite as clear a case as it's usually presented. We tend to overlook the fact that the northern part of Crimea is populated mostly by ethnic Ukrainians. The middle range, about 15 percent to 20 percent of the total population, is populated by Crimean Tatars who are deadest against annexation by Russia. And then you've got the lower swath, which is to say the beaches, as well as Sevastopol, where the Black Sea fleet is based, which, of course, is very heavily pro-Russian.

Personally, I don't see the Crimea seceding, mostly because there is just too much diversity even with the region, and I would be shocked if Vladimir Putin decided to annex the territory single-handedly. If he did, he would be sending a signal to the rest of the non-Russian republics within the near abroad that he has the right to annex Russian populated territories unilaterally.

That would immediately put the fear of god into Lukashenko in Belarus and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and end virtually overnight whatever hopes he has for the establishment of a customs union, Eurasian union, or any kind of reintegration of the former Soviet space.

So I'm pretty optimistic. I don't see this scenario happening. And primarily, as I said, because this stereotype is simply a stereotype that's been perpetrated by individuals, mostly within Russian elite circles, who just don't get Ukraine.

SESTANOVICH: Can I add one thing to this?

MCMAHON: Well, the experience -- yes, please go ahead. I was just going to mention the experience in Georgia being a chilling reminder, though, of other...

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. Yeah. I agree with what Alex has said, but I add two things. One is that for any new government that comes in, there is a, you know, situation of extreme national -- and sometimes nationalist mobilization across the country that they've got to reckon with as a top agenda item, that is, calming these passions, restoring a sense that we're all part of the Ukrainian state, and have a place in it in the future, and that -- and dealing with that problem at a time when passions have gotten more out of control than they have been at any time in Ukraine's post-Soviet history, that's an important job for them.

The second thing is that Alex was right to say at the beginning that some people in Ukraine are, you know, worried about saving their skins. This is a somewhat new problem in Ukrainian politics, which has been in its post-Soviet history mostly kind of moderate. For all that there have been swings back and forth, there has been a kind of spirit of restraint and compromise that has made it possible to hold the country together and keep passions under control.

To say that Ukrainian -- a lot of Ukrainian politicians are worried about saving their skin is to describe a more volatile situation than we've seen so far. And so that, too, makes it a responsibility for the new political leadership to try to calm things down and restore some greater sense of national unity. That national unity has been frayed in the past couple of months.

MCMAHON: Thank you. Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. And as a reminder, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star, one. And our next question comes from Michael Mothetic (ph) with PBS Online NewsHour.

QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you. You've talked about that U.S.-Russian relations are in a dicey period. What consequence is it, if any, that as of next week or so, we aren't even going to have an ambassador there? And I don't know when the Mike McFaul is even likely to be replaced. And also, in that context, to what extent is Putin like a cornered and caged and humiliated person, and likely as a result of that just to lash out somehow?

MCMAHON: Steve, you want to start?

SESTANOVICH: Putin is definitely feeling a little cornered today. He is not somebody who lashes out quickly. He will compose his plans and think about how to respond. And, you know, six months from now, we'll have a better sense of that.

As to what communications between Russia and the United States are like in the absence of an ambassador, Mike McFaul's absence will be a loss, but it should be said that there has been a communication at a pretty high level and through lots of different channels with the secretary of state and the foreign minister, defense ministers, other people interacting in a fairy regular way. They've been interacting in a not very constructive way with diminishing trust. So the issue isn't so much the presence or absence of individual personalities as the level of disagreement, and that level is rising.

MCMAHON: Alex Motyl, anything to add?

MOTYL: I just don't think that there's much that Putin can do at this particular point in time. He would be mad to invade. That would require a massive deployment of forces, lead to a Cold War, transform Russia into a rogue state. He'd be crazy to annex Luhansk and Donetsk, if only because these are economic sinkholes. He'd be equally crazy to try to annex the Crimea, at least in the foreseeable future, for reasons that I suggested.

He could respond with certain kinds of economic sanctions, but that's just going to worsen his relationship with the new Ukrainian government. It's not going to bring it down, and it will simply impel them to seek even closer ties with the West and possibly even see closer ties with NATO, which is his worst-case scenario. My guess is that unless he's really lost his marbles, he will, as Steve suggested, just sit back and try to figure something out for the foreseeable future.

MCMAHON: Thank you. Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Ivan Kilshovic (ph), Itar-Tass News Agency.

QUESTION: OK, thank you. I have a question to both of the speakers. What other tools can and should, in your opinion, United States use to influence the situation in Ukraine? Thank you.

MCMAHON: So, Steve, we've talked about some of the financial leverage, but is there anything else you would add that the U.S. could be prepared to bring to this problem?

SESTANOVICH: I think this is one where the kinds of efforts that they've been making, you know, a lot of high-level communication, good public messaging, and getting an economic policy out there that is -- shows a support for a new government, those are the most important elements of it.

It is probably true that, in the next couple of days and weeks, Russia will be trying to judge whether this is being treated in -- whether developments in Ukraine are being treated in triumphalist terms in Europe and in the United States, and probably emphasizing that -- from the American point of view -- you know, the future of Ukraine is not one that has to be threatening or adverse for Russia would also contribute to constructive re-thinking of their policy toward Ukraine by Russia itself.

MCMAHON: Thanks, Steve. Alex, anything else on U.S. approaches?

MOTYL: I think the United States should reassure Mr. Putin that it has no intention of transforming Ukraine into some kind of standard-bearer of American imperialism, maybe not quite in that language, but I think the most Steve made at the very end is very appropriate. Ukraine wants -- I mean, the best-case scenario for everybody concerned is a prosperous, stable, friendly Ukraine that gets along with all its neighbors.

MCMAHON: Thank you. Operator, do we have another call on the line, please?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with the Mitchell Report.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. I think -- I guess I would say at this point it's already been covered, but I'm still thinking about Mr. Putin. And it seems to me that, as short a time ago as a week or 10 days ago, we might well have been hearing -- you know, that Putin was in this for the long haul and that the Europeans less generally wouldn't ultimately hang in there enough, and Putin would have his way in the Ukraine because it's among the most important of his goals, which is to maintain this sort of former Soviet Union hegemony, or however one might want to describe it.

And yet here we are today with -- really, saying, you know, he's lost, he's going to go home with his tail between his legs, he'll think this over, he won't be rash, and he certainly won't do anything precipitous in the Ukraine, per se.

I'm -- recognizing that I do not ask this question as anything resembling an expert, but as somebody who's been listening to a lot of this conversation of recent -- I'm unpersuaded that -- that this will not force Putin's hand to some extent to take actions somewhere, not necessarily in the region, possibly in Syria, possibly with Snowden, who knows where else, but I want you to -- both Steve and Alexis to know, I've been listening, so I understand your point of view, but I think I just want to press a little harder on that and ask whether leaving the Ukrainians...

SESTANOVICH: I get what you're saying. Can I just...

MCMAHON: Yeah, please, Steve. Go ahead. Please.

SESTANOVICH: I think you raise some very important questions. And they're a reminder of several things that need to be part of our analysis going forward. One is the E.U. has a lot of its own preoccupations without looking beyond its borders. And the prospect of having to wrestle with Ukraine's future is for a lot of E.U. governments not a particularly welcome one.

So one question mark to put right at the top of the list here is, is the staying power of the E.U. and its ability to contribute to a good outcome here as great as the visit of the three amigos this week might make you think? And I think that's an open question.

A second reminder is that Ukraine's situation is not great. It is on the brink of bankruptcy. It has taken an economic hit from these -- from these upheavals. And it is going to have to find a way to weather a kind of bumpy road where there will be a lot of bad news that tends to make a new government look bad.

And the final thing you say is also a good reminder, and that is, this has -- there's been a reason that we have for so long said this matters more to Russia than it does to the E.U., and that's why they're coming out on top. The Ukrainian crowds in the street have given a pretty decisive rebuke to that idea by saying that they have their own view of what matters, and that may end up mattering more.

But you're right. We should not count out the fact that the stakes for Russia are very high. It is likely that in some way, short of madness, as Alex, I think, is right to say, we should not really predict, that Putin will want to restore his influence and position in Ukraine. He can do that in more and less constructive ways, and I just don't have a prediction.

MCMAHON: Alex, you have the final word on this question of the staying power, Putin, and what next on Ukraine.

MOTYL: Well, listen, I mean, if Putin wanted to play a constructive role in Ukraine and redeem himself in the eyes of the democratic opposition and possibly in the West, he could pick up the phone, call his good friend, Yanukovych, and tell him, "Take the first flight to Moscow. I've got a little dacha for you, and you can spend the rest of your life living here."

That -- I mean, again, I mean that quite seriously. That would resolve so many things immediately and actually be a positive contribution, both to Putin's image, as well as to the resolution of the crisis.

The other point to keep in mind is this. Regardless of what Putin does in the immediate term, we really have to remember -- I mean, this is a foreign policy defeat. It's a foreign policy defeat with very worrisome domestic policy implications for Putin, not just at home, but also in places like Belarus, Kazakhstan, and other parts of the near abroad. If the Ukrainians can pull something like this off, it is at least conceivable that there might be individuals within Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and elsewhere who might decide, well, why not us?

Remember, there was a whole series of colored revolutions between 2003 and 2004. And they tended to draw their strength and inspiration from the one that preceded it. So this may actually be the first. It may not. But it's at least something that Putin has to keep in mind.

So, again, just to repeat, my sense is that Ukraine will have a bit -- will have some breathing space as Putin reassembles his forces, as he re-thinks his strategies for the next few months, possibly longer. And, hence, if you do have a consolidated government, and I think it will be, at least for the immediate future, and if there is more than just token support on the part of Western Europe and the U.S., there may be good chances of some positive first steps. As Steve said, they're likely to be controversial. They will lead to a variety of issues and problems, but they could begin to turn the country around and move it in a positive direction.

And that would be, as I said, you know, about an hour ago, an enormous transformation. I mean, Ukraine might actually begin to see the glimpses of a light at the end of the tunnel.

MCMAHON: And our hour is up on that note. I want to thank our featured speakers here, Stephen Sestanovich, CFR's senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies, and Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark. This concludes this Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record media call. Thanks to all for joining in. Thank you all.

SESTANOVICH: Thanks, Bob.

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

MOTYL: Thank you very much.

OPERATOR: This concludes today's teleconference. You may now disconnect.

END

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