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Professors and students discuss problems in Ukraine

By Jimmy Onofrio
On April 24, 2014

Since the beginning of a protest movement last year a complex situation has developed in Ukraine that the media is often portraying as a battle between Russia and the West. However, for the Ukrainian Students' Association, who hosted a Forum on the Crisis in Ukraine on Wednesday at the Dodd Center, the crisis hits closer to home, and they see it as a struggle for Ukrainians to determine their own destiny. 

Three members of the UConn political science department and Alex Kuzma, chief development officer for the Ukrainian Catholic Education Fund, presented their perspectives on the ongoing events in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and the wider global situation.




Last November, a wave of public demonstrations called EuroMaidan began in Kiev and quickly spread to other cities. The demonstrations were protesting corruption and the perception that Ukraine's leaders were moving it ever closer to Russia. 

In a video made by the Ukrainian Students' Association, one member, Natalia Svirshchevsky, recalls how her Ukrainian cousin was asked to pay bribes upon entry into a university.

Kuzma characterized President Viktor Yanukovynch's regime as "one of the most odious and corrupt dictatorships in Europe." Under Yanukovych's rule, the country's economy has been awful, with high unemployment and widespread poverty. Many Ukrainians also believe he weakened Ukraine's sovereignty, dismantling the country's military and becoming almost a puppet government of Moscow, according to Kuzma.

Natalia Pylypyszyn, founder and president of the Ukrainian Students' Association and photographer for The Daily Campus, said the government needs an overhaul if corruption is to be rooted out. "They need a new, less corrupt leadership," she said. "There need to be some new faces in the parliament."

However, despite rapidly developing Ukrainian politics the focus for Western media quickly turned to Russia, with its occupation of Crimea and the appearance of pro-Russian militias in eastern provinces.


Russian expansionism


Oksan Bayulgen, a political science professor who has studied resources and comparative politics in the post-Soviet region, talked about the "Russian project of reintegrating former Soviet republics."

Russia has also benefitted economically from its reserves of oil and natural gas, she said, which is purchased by Europe even as the E.U. criticizes Russian behavior in Eastern Europe. This has emboldened Russia and given it both a source of leverage over the West, as well as something to offer to regional states that return to the Russian sphere.

Western hopes for Vladimir Putin to be a complacent friend to the West have proven unfounded, argued Stephen Dyson, an international relations professor who has written about the psychology of world leaders. But, Dyson said, "Maybe any leader in his place would have behaved the same way as Putin."

Jeremy Pressman, a professor of international relations and foreign policy, told the audience that there are many potential ways Russia could see the situation. One view, said Pressman, is that attempts by NATO and the E.U. to add former Soviet states such as the Baltics has caused Russia to protect what it sees as its neighborhood of the world. 

Another perspective Pressman raised is that maybe "the U.S. and its allies have been too weak towards Russia," failing to step in when Russia invaded Georgia or intervened in domestic situations in Armenia and Moldova.


Ukraine's history with Russia


Kuzma said Ukraine's "historic ties" to Russia are "ties of exploitation and abuse," where Russia has dominated Ukraine politically, economically and culturally. 

 For centuries, Russian armies have invaded Ukraine, both directly and as a path towards places further west. As part of the Soviet Union, local cultures were stifled or destroyed while poverty and famine gripped the land due to collectivist policies. The USSR resettled many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, another source of tension as Ukraine is pulled between Russia and Europe, according to the BBC's special report on the Ukrainian crisis. 

This history has made many Ukrainians resentful towards Russia, and towards Ukrainian leaders who appear to bow to Russian interests - one of the causes behind the ousting of Yanukovych. But Bayulgen argued this has also fueled Russian perception of Ukraine as belonging to them. 

"Russia felt the loss of their empire very dramatically," Bayulgen said, arguing that they felt a claim to former Soviet lands. Russia has attempted this diplomatically, with treaty groups such as the Eurasian Economic Community, an equivalent to the European Economic Community. 

According to Pylypyszyn, the strength of Russia has always hampered Ukraine's independence. "It's been hard for Ukraine to do anything, with the Kremlin right there," said Pylypyszyn


Ongoing tension


Many members of the Ukrainian community in the U.S. and elsewhere are trying to maintain focus on the Ukrainian people's struggle for self-determination, which has often been lost in the conversation about Russia.

"It's hard to make statements about what 'everyone' wants," Pylypyszyn said, "but everyone in Ukraine wants the freedom to decide" without foreign intervention.

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