Political And Cultural Splinters Are Deep In Ukraine

Protests run deeper than the country's recent turn away from the European Union. Former ambassador Stephen Sestanovich discusses Ukraine's history, long fractured by language, culture and politics.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The conflict that the world is witnessing in the streets of Kiev has deep roots and potentially, very wide repercussions. Ukraine is a country of 45 million people; and at issue these days is how it aligns itself, and how it defines its future.

Columbia University professor Stephen Sestanovich is a former U.S. ambassador at large to the former Soviet Union. Welcome to the program, once again.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Thanks.

SIEGEL: One reading of the conflict in Ukraine is that it's caused by a fault line between east and west, a border between civilizations that runs right through this country. What's the case for that, and do you buy it?

SESTANOVICH: Well, it's definitely an important part of Ukraine's identity. There is the part in the east that looks more toward Russia. There's the part in the west that looks more toward Poland, that feels more Catholic. In most ways, since independence, for Ukraine that division has actually been positive; positive in the sense that the country has been divided in a way that made it necessary to compromise, to actually advance democratic norms, to rule with respect for both halves.

What is interesting now is that somehow, those issues of identity have become much more divisive, much more destructive, violent; and threaten to break the country up.

SIEGEL: How important is the outcome of this conflict, say, to the Russians?

SESTANOVICH: It's very important for the Russians in a number of ways. Ukraine is economically important. It is also seen as somehow the most significant European country that could be a close ally or even satellite of Moscow. It depends on your imperial outlook. For a lot of Russians, the idea of Ukraine being completely estranged from Russia suggests Russian isolation.

SIEGEL: It sounds like there's an asymmetry at work here, that this - the outcome is extremely important to the Russians. The EU, on the other hand, many European Union countries are facing popular resistance to workers coming in from Bulgaria and Romania. Their electorates might forgive them very easily, letting Ukraine take a pass on further European integration.

SESTANOVICH: There are many asymmetries here. There's the asymmetries of resources. The Russians have been prepared to put money on the table and say, this is what we will give you if you play ball with us. There's also the asymmetry of decision-making. The Russians have only to convince Putin to put the money on the table.

The EU has a fragmented process for deciding anything, and that has made them often a day late and a dollar short in communicating the advantages of a good relationship to the Ukrainians.

SIEGEL: Does this come down to an either/or question; that is, you're either a part of the European Union and Europe, or you're part of a rump Soviet Union with Russia and Belarus, say?

SESTANOVICH: Until now, it hasn't been. For 20-odd years, it has been possible for the Ukrainians to kind of have it both ways. What is now the troubling issue on the agenda is the perception of a lot of people that you do have to choose. And that is producing violence across Ukraine. Police stations are being seized in western Ukraine. Buildings are being burned in eastern Ukraine that symbolize the pro-western opposition. There are battles in Kiev that are really given this violent edge because people think it's one thing or the other.

SIEGEL: Ukraine, as it exists on the map today, was drawn by the Soviets who were often mischievous in the way that they made republic borders work. They didn't want to encourage nationalist movements. A lot of Russians moved to Ukraine. Is Ukraine, as it exists today, a stable country that is unlikely to break apart, say?

SESTANOVICH: Well, Russians say about all the states of the former Soviet Union that, we've never lived in these borders as independent states. And that's true enough and includes Russia. Russia has never had the borders that it now has, and Ukraine has never been a state. The borders of Ukraine were drawn by Stalin and Khrushchev.

But the divisions within Ukraine can easily be exaggerated. There is actually a relatively strong consensus - or there has been, until now - about the importance of maintaining Ukrainian statehood. There are few people who actually want to be reabsorbed into Russia. There are a few people who want to break apart from Ukraine and the West. But this issue has become open again and that's - we see how dangerous and violent things get when that issue becomes open.

SIEGEL: Do you get the sense, by the way, that the protesters in Kiev are responding to leadership, and that there is a movement here that the government can negotiate with?

SESTANOVICH: What a lot of the Ukrainian leadership on both sides - in the government and in the opposition - worry about is that the crowds are increasingly beyond their control; and that they are now looking at a situation in which the street has its own momentum, its own consciousness, and is no longer following anybody's orders.

SIEGEL: Stephen Sestanovich, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

SESTANOVICH: Thanks.

SIEGEL: Stephen Sestanovich is professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He is also the author of "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama."

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