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Stanford roundtable addresses the causes and consequences of the Ukrainian protests

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Map of Ukraine
A Stanford roundtable addressed the causes and consequences of the Ukrainian protests.
Photo Credit: 
istock.com/© akinbostanci
Since November 2013, the Euromaidan opposition demonstrations in Ukraine and the ensuing conflict in Crimea have gripped the world and swiftly propelled the region to the forefront of international attention. These intensely emotional events have impacted the lives of millions, reignited debates over the Soviet legacy, and polarized many.
 
In an effort to address some of the historical complexity and geopolitical implications of the events in Ukraine Stanford’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (CREEES) organized a roundtable discussion with both American and Ukrainian scholars and a distinguished diplomat.
 
Ambassador Vlad Lupan, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Moldova to the United Nations, Ukrainian professor Yaroslav Prytula, and Mark von Hagen, a historian and expert in Ukrainian-Russian relations, each offered a nuanced and unique perspective on the unfolding crisis, before engaging in a lively Q&A session with the audience. 
 
Stanford Associate Professor of History and Director of the Sohaib and Sara Abbassi Program in Islamic Studies and the Mediterranean Forum Robert Crews moderated the event, held on April 11 at the Stanford Humanities Center.
 
CREEES Director Pavle Levi said the roundtable aimed to “address both the historical and the contemporary dynamics of this situation” and to create “a forum within which the Stanford community - students, faculty, and the general public - could engage in a nuanced discussion about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.” 
 
With support from event co-sponsors The Europe Center and the Stanford Humanities Center, Levi said CREEES was able to host a discussion that brought together “academic and policy experts from around the world.” In Levi’s view, the result was “a very rich conversation about a complex situation."
 
The large crowd listened attentively as the presenters discussed topics such as Ukraine and Russia’s interconnected history, the emergence of a new Russian foreign policy, and the legacy of the Euromaidan movement within Ukraine. 
 
The very composition of the crowd illustrated the intense interest the conflict has generated; former Ambassador to Russia and Stanford professor Michael McFaul was in attendance, along with members of the Stanford community and general public. Also present was Mykyta Safronenko, cofounder of MaydanSF, a San Francisco chapter of the Euromaidan protests, a testament to the truly global reach of the movement.
 
A video of the event will be available on the Stanford Humanities Center multimedia page soon.
 

Untangling a history of complex relations 

Van Hagen, a professor of history at Arizona State who has published extensively on Ukrainian-Russian relations, brought years of experience to the roundtable. 
 
Central to Van Hagen’s arguments was a deconstruction of the standard narrative of Ukraine and Russia’s shared history. In his view, such a narrative simplifies what has actually been a more complicated and difficult relationship. “I’d like to emphasize that that shared history was not always a choice,” stated Van Hagen. “Ukrainians didn’t always have a choice of sharing that history with the Russians, and that choice often meant a great deal of suffering - for both Russians and Ukrainians, as they tried to work out these relationships.” 
 
At the moment, however, Van Hagen believes that the political fate of the two countries is indeed inseparable. “Ukraine cannot prosper,” he argues, “cannot be free and independent, if it has an ominous Russian neighbor. Ukraine’s success depends on Russia transforming, and I think that’s going to be a long and difficult process.”
 

Examining the legacy of Euromaidan

Yaroslav Prytula, Associate Professor of Ukraine’s Lviv Ivan Franko National University and currently a Fulbright Scholar at George Washington University, put forth an analysis of Euromaidan that focused largely on the achievements and failures of the movement as a whole. 
 
According to Prytula, the opposition suffered from a lack of organization, using outdated techniques and failing to consolidate into an effective united front. Ukraine’s civil society also in many ways struggled to live up to the moment. In his view, Ukrainian civil society was unable to offer a potential leader capable of generating genuine enthusiasm and somewhat intensified Ukraine’s regional polarization. These failures, however, are tempered by a series of unprecedented triumphs in Ukrainian society. 
 
For Prytula, the opposition’s effective appeals to the international community and a coinciding surge in civic engagement and concern for civic rights largely outweighed Euromaidan’s shortcomings.
 
Perhaps Prytula’s most substantial argument concerned the importance of networks in today’s international world. “There is an end of geography now,” he posited, arguing that the Cold War emphasis on geographic spheres of influence is outdated. “Networks play a bigger role now. Networks in the financial world, networks in economics and trade, networks in communication, in the Internet and personal networks.” 
 
According to Prytula, the prominence of networks over geography was clearly visible in the United Nations vote on the situation in Crimea, where only 10 countries voted explicitly in Russia’s favor. “One hundred countries supported the Ukrainian position,” he noted, “and that makes me feel positive for the future of Ukraine.”
 

Focusing on perceptions

The final speaker, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Moldova to the UN Vlad Lupan, brought forth a case for the need to focus on a somewhat more fluid and illusive aspect of the conflict – perceptions. According to Lupan, a true understanding of the conflict is not possible without a concentrated and honest consideration of the perceptions fueling the Russian decision-making process. Also of central concern is the development within Russia of new geopolitical ideas and of a new foreign policy outlook– a development that is ignored at the West’s peril.
 
These complex emotional and political sentiments are difficult to come to terms with, but for Vlad Lupan, they are of critical importance. 
 
During the Q&A session, Lupan broadened his discussion of the role of perceptions to encompass not only policymakers, but also general populations as a whole. “The question is not how the elites are seeing this,” urges Lupan, “the question is about how people are seeing this.” Perceptions on the ground – on all sides – cannot be ignored if one hopes to reach a true understanding of the contrasting forces at work in many post-Soviet societies. 
 
With diplomatic flair, Lupan invited the audience to consider poll numbers from Ukraine and Moldova concerning EU integration, leaving attendees with perhaps the most poignant and unanswerable question of the night. “50 percent in one direction, 50 percent in another. How do we explain that? Because this is the question that we have to answer.”
 
In the end, the three speakers created as many new questions as they answered. For indeed, this is precisely why the conflict in Ukraine has commanded global attention for almost half a year; many of the questions it presents take place within incredibly complex geopolitical and historical contexts, and are as intimately linked to the hopes and dreams of one person as to the anxiety and uncertainty of another. As the speakers amply illustrated, an ongoing dialogue about these contexts is fundamental to understanding and responding to the events in Ukraine. 
 
Jacob Parsley is an MA candidate in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Stanford.