Nicholas Burns On the Situation in Ukraine

February 27, 2014
By Jenny Li Fowler

Ukraine's interim authorities officially formed a new government on Thursday (Feb. 27), and former President Yanukovich has surfaced in Russia, claiming to still be the president.

Nicholas Burns, The Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, talks about the current state of affairs in Ukraine and what it means for the U.S.

Q:
How do you assess the current situation in Ukraine?

Burns: This is a pivotal moment for the people of Ukraine. The country is badly divided along ethnic and linguistic lines and about its future strategic direction. The majority of Ukrainians want a future with the European Union. But a sizeable minority of ethnic Russians, largely in the eastern part of the country and in Crimea, wish to preserve their historic and symbiotic economic, social, and political ties with Russia. The new interim government will struggle over the next weeks and months to stabilize the imploding economy and to prepare for the May 25 presidential elections.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, is already launching an effort to intimidate the new government in order to keep Ukraine within the Kremlin’s orbit. Russia has announced major military exercises to send a not-so-subtle message of its power and ability to use force if necessary. Russia is also harboring the former President Yanukovich who is asserting the new government has no legitimacy and that he is still the rightful president. And ethnic Russians have taken control of key government buildings in Crimea and are flying the Russian flag from them. These are all worrisome developments.

I don’t think a Russian military intervention into Ukraine is likely in the short term. It is more likely Putin will apply economic pressure on the Ukrainian government, including the possibility of reducing or cutting off supplies of natural gas. But, you can’t rule out the use of force by the Russian army. It all depends on how events develop.

Q: The interim government has set a date for new elections. Is this a good sign?

Burns: The presidential elections scheduled for May 25 are critically important for Ukraine’s future as an independent state. The new leaders in Kiev want the people of Ukraine to decide on the country’s future rather than the Russian military. They hope to attract international economic aid in the short term from the U.S., EU, and International Monetary Fund in order to keep the country moving forward until a new government is in place after the elections. The U.S., Germany, and other European countries will cite the elections to buttress their main argument against Russian intimidation and intervention—let the people of Ukraine decide their future and create an environment where peaceful change is possible.

Q: Why is the outcome in Ukraine so important for the United States and the West?

Burns: One of the most important strategic aims of the U.S. since the Second World War has been the creation of a Europe that is, in the words of President George H.W. Bush, “whole, free, and at peace." The absence of such a Europe was a primary reason why the U.S. had to sacrifice so much in the First and Second World Wars and in the four decades of the Cold War. When the USSR and Warsaw Pact collapsed more than twenty years ago, it was the single greatest American foreign policy success of the past half century. A weak Ukraine isolated in the center of Europe between the EU and NATO on the one hand, and Russia on the other is a direct threat to the maintenance of the democratic peace in Europe that we have long supported. The U.S. and Europe will thus work very hard, by peaceful means, to give the Ukrainian people the chance to choose a future with Europe if they so wish.

Q: You have written about the Cold War dynamic at play in Ukraine. Please elaborate.

Burns: We are not witnessing a return to the Cold War in the current Ukraine crisis. But we are certainly witnessing Cold War passions play out within Ukraine itself. The U.S. and its NATO allies will argue publicly and vociferously against the possibility of a Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel spoke bluntly and effectively this week to warn Moscow not to take that step. The main policy that is emerging between the U.S. and its European allies is a long-term diplomatic campaign to support reform in Ukraine, give concrete economic assistance to the new government, argue publicly for the unity and territorial integrity of the country, and help to steer it westward over time. This is a long term project but very much in the American interest. It will have the support of the vast majority of countries worldwide. Will it be effective in influencing Putin? We’ll know more as these dramatic events continue to play out in the next few weeks.

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Nicholas Burns, The Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations

Nicholas Burns, The Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations

Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

"The new interim government will struggle over the next weeks and months to stabilize the imploding economy and to prepare for the May 25 Presidential elections."