By Robert Bosco – Centre Faculty
BOSCO: Dr. Hamm, thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions.
You are an expert in the Soviet and Post-Soviet periods, the Cold War, Eastern and Central European politics, and the Russian Revolution.
You have authored multiple university press books, including one on Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine.
Without a doubt, you are the faculty member best placed to give the Centre community your reflections on this issue.
You come to this topic as a historian. In your opinion, can past history help to explain some of what we see unfolding between Russia and the Ukraine today? What can that history not explain?
HAMM: The conflict needs a historical perspective to be fully understood. For example, most of Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire in 1654 and remained part of that empire until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Ukrainian language was said to be a dialect of Russian rather than a separate language and was banned in written form for part of that time. Various tsars succeeded in “Russifying” the area.
After the chaotic years of the Civil War (1918-20), the new Soviet government gave some measure of autonomy to Ukraine, especially on the matter of language rights, but particularly in the 1930’s, Stalin resorted to brutal Russification of the region.
In 1932-33 the Soviet government confiscated so much food from Ukraine that a famine ensued, resulting in the deaths of several million Ukrainians. Ukrainians refer to this event as their “holocaust.”
For Soviet-era bureaucrats like Vladimir Putin, Ukraine tends to be seen as a part of Russia, or at least an integral part of the Russian orbit.
BOSCO: To what extent has a Ukrainian national identity developed since independence in 1991?
HAMM: Western Ukraine, the area around Lviv, was annexed by the Soviet Union only at the end of World War II. Prior to that time, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then in the interwar period, part of Poland, so this area has been less Russified over time than Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian national sentiment there is very strong, as is the desire to join the EU.
In Eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, there are many Russians and Russian-speakers, and they are more sympathetic to Russia.
It should be noted, however, that there is no evidence that Russians or Russian-speakers are being persecuted anywhere in Ukraine.
This is a fabrication by the Putin propaganda machine and may serve as a pretext for future Russian intervention “to protect their interests.” Many Russian speakers are perfectly content to be part of Ukraine.
There is also a generational difference. Ukrainians under the age of 30 don’t remember the old Soviet Union and are more likely to see themselves as Ukrainians and identify with the modern Ukrainian state.
BOSCO: Let’s consider Putin: the man, the enigma. On second thought, is Putin really an enigma? When you look at Putin’s place among the pantheon of recent Russian leaders, do you see discontinuity or continuity?
HAMM: More continuity than discontinuity for the reasons stated above.
BOSCO: How much of what is happening between Russia and the Ukraine can we understand by considering Putin’s personality and leadership style?
HAMM: Putin’s popularity (which is now waning) has stemmed from his image as a strong and decisive leader in a democracy that has not functioned very well since it was implemented in the early 1990s. Many Russians, particularly older Russians, seem to favor “strong” authoritarian leadership.
BOSCO: I seem to remember, when the U.S. was making interventionist noises about the Syrian issue, Putin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times chastising the U.S. for even considering action in Syria without international consultation, consensus, or regard for international law. Who is the hypocrite here?
HAMM: Let me answer that in a general way. America’s war on Iraq, which was waged and justified in part with claims that were false (and which was waged with very little international support), has made Russia (and China) very resentful of American unilateralism.
BOSCO: Speaking of the New York Times, a recent op-ed by a high-level Russian diplomat argued that the U.S. should have seen this coming, and was foolish to celebrate Ukraine’s revolution as a democratic one. What did the U.S. expect Putin to do? The author was pretty blunt: America is naïve when it comes to dealing with Russia. Do you agree?
HAMM: No, I don’t think we were naïve. We don’t have a lot of leverage in that part of the world and Putin knows it.
BOSCO: In your opinion, what is Putin’s “endgame” in Crimea, and Ukraine as a whole? Would he be satisfied with placing a pro-Kremlin leader in Kiev, and a de facto annexation of Crimea?
HAMM: I suspect probably. At least I hope so. One “endgame” is that Putin would like to create a Russian-dominated Eurasian Union to counter the European Union. Without Ukraine, such a union would not be viable.
BOSCO: The press in the U.S. clearly frames Putin as some sort of villain. I think one U.S. politician quite openly compared him to Hitler. What are your thoughts on the representation/misrepresentation of Russia and Putin to the American people?
HAMM: Comparing him with Hitler is rhetorical overkill. However, there is legitimate concern when a leader assumes the right to “protect” and absorb co-nationals in neighboring states.
Milošević in Serbia and Tudjman in Croatia did this in the 90’s as Yugoslavia came apart and the result was brutal civil war and genocide in Bosnia.
BOSCO: This interviewer believes that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has outlived its usefulness and eastward expansion only antagonizes Russia and provokes the very kinds of action we see in Crimea. Would you agree? What is your opinion on the role that NATO’s desire for expansion has in this issue?
HAMM: The expansion of NATO is worrisome to Russia especially with regard to Ukraine.
It was one thing for the Baltic states to join, but Ukraine, because of its size and historic ties to Russia, is quite another matter.
Russian leaders would see Ukrainian attempts to join NATO (at some point in the future) as a hostile act contrary to their interest. I would not favor initiatives to encourage Ukraine to join NATO. Whether we like it or not, Ukraine is in the Russian orbit and we are certainly not going to go to war to defend Ukraine.
BOSCO: And our European allies?
HAMM: Germany is key, and the Germans get one-third of their natural gas and oil from Russia. Moreover, one German organization has stated that 300,000 German jobs depend on exports to Russia.
So Germany is going to be reluctant to take a hard-line stand, but if Putin pushes too far, especially in Eastern Ukraine, the EU and the U.S. could really hurt the Russian economy (which is already weak) by freezing Russian assets and, in the case of the EU, reducing imports of Russian gas and oil.
The availability of liquefied natural gas from other sources makes this a real option. I suspect Putin knows this.