Stanford scholar: Uncertainty reigns in crisis-ridden Ukraine

A Stanford historian argues that the Ukrainian crisis reflects a deep desire among many people in that country for a more democratic, pro-Western government and economy. But the future is unclear.


Russia is not about to give up its influence on Ukraine despite the collapse of the Kremlin-supported government of Viktor F. Yanukovych, according to history Professor Norman Naimark. He is director of the Stanford Global Studies Division and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Naimark spoke with Stanford News Service about the issues confronting Ukraine:

Does the Ukrainian conflict show the limits of Russian influence and its challenge in offering a rival civilizational model to the liberal democratic West?

Naimark: I do think that there are limits to Russian influence, but I think it is also important to understand that the Russians themselves understand pretty much what they can and cannot do. They are not foolish. As a model of civilization for Ukraine, that is right – they cannot offer what the European Union and the United States can. But Ukraine does not want to be in the situation, say, of an Estonia or Latvia, where contact and trade with Russia is reduced to an absolute minimum. Ukraine also needs Russia. Part of the issue is, of course, petroleum and a market for Ukrainian goods. But part is cultural and historical, where large segments of the Ukrainian population have a sense of kinship with the Russians – though, to repeat, they want to maintain their independence and do not want to be under Russian hegemony.

What are the historic, ethnic and political ties between the Russians and Ukrainians?

Naimark: Moscow sees Ukraine as part of its immediate sphere of influence and crucial to its attempt to invigorate plans for a "Eurasian Union," essentially a Moscow-led customs union between a group of former Soviet republics. What makes Russian politics in Ukraine particularly complicated is the combination of the Russians' self-proclaimed "emotional" attachment to Ukraine and a sense of betrayal that the vast majority of Ukrainians, even many who might be considered Russians, prefer not to be part of a Russian-dominated entity.

There are many different views of Russians among the Ukrainian population. One should not see this crisis as a struggle between Ukrainians and Russians. Their histories are deeply intertwined and the viewpoints of Ukrainians, including substantial numbers of Russians who are Ukrainian citizens, about Russians in the Russian Republic are mixed and diverse.

What we have seen is predominantly a political struggle between President Viktor Yanukovych and his supporters, including the leaders of the Russian Federation, and a broad coalition of opposition parties in Ukraine and their supporters, Ukrainians and Russians, who wanted to see him removed and a new, more democratic, pro-Western government established.

Now that Yanukovych has fled, the question is whether the new Ukrainian opposition coalition can put together a program that will satisfy the highly diverse segments of the opposition, as well as parts of the pro-Moscow east and south (Crimea.)

What were the main reasons for the unrest?

Naimark: Among the chief long-term causes for the protests were certainly hopes among a substantial segment of the Ukrainian population for closer ties with the West, particularly the European Union, as a way to help democratize the Ukrainian polity, eliminate debilitating corruption and modernize its economy.

Prominent among the short-term causes was the unexpected, even shocking, reversal of President Yanukovych's announced intention to sign an association agreement with the EU at its Vilnius meeting at the end of November, which set off initially peaceful protests in central Kiev and elsewhere around the country.

What lies ahead for Ukraine?

Naimark: We are at the end, one hopes, of an especially violent stage in the confrontation between the government and opposition. It was hard to predict any good coming from the death and destruction that took place in the last week, primarily at the hands of the government. Yet, at the moment, there seems to be a spirit of unity in the victory over the Yanukovych forces and positive moves on the part of Ukrainian politicians, society and the West to consolidate this victory and proceed with democratic elections.

It is worth noting that when the recent crisis began three months ago, Ukraine was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Russians have offered to bail out the Ukrainians under better conditions, meaning fewer strings attached involving austerity, than the EU. But it would mean giving up many Ukrainians' hopes since independence in 2001 of being part of the West.

Given Moscow's opposition to the removal of Yanukovych, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the U.S. need to step into the economic breach.

Why should Americans be concerned about what happens in Ukraine?

Naimark: Ukraine is an extremely important country to U.S. national security interests. With 46 million people and a large land area, Ukraine sits in a very strategic position north of the Black Sea. A stable democracy in Ukraine would secure Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, and provide an important impetus for further democratic expansion in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. What we call the "Western Community" would be greatly enriched by the inclusion of Ukraine, a newly independent country with huge upside potential for industrial, agricultural and technological growth.

It's also worth mentioning the richness and diversity of Ukrainian culture, the heritage of the Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires, and the large Ukrainian-American and Ukrainian-Canadian communities with close ties to their homeland.

Media Contact

Norman Naimark, History: (650) 723-2674, naimark [at] (naimark[at]stanford[dot]edu)

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker [at] (cbparker[at]stanford[dot]edu)



A Ukrainian flag partially obscures a monument to KGB officers in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday.

Darko Vojinovic/AP