Kyiv Post interview

The following is a repost of an interview I did recently with the Kyiv Post’s Ilya Timtchenko on Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the United States. I really like how it turned out.

A nation that is ‘both Ukrainian and Russian’

Dmitry Gorenburg is a lecturer at Harvard University, editor of Problems of Post-Communism and a senior analyst and director of Russian and East European Studies at CNA Strategic Studies, a non-profit think tank in Alexandria, Virginia. His is the author of Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation and a number of articles, including “Rethinking Interethnic Marriage in the Soviet Union.” In this Kyiv Post interview Gorenburg analyzes Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the U.S. and gives advice for Ukraine’s nation-building.

Kyiv Post: What has prompted your interest in Eastern Europe?

Dmitry Gorenburg: I think much of it had to do with my personal biography. I was born in Russia and came to the U.S. when I was a kid. Since I was fluent in Russian and the Soviet Union was in the middle of perestroika, I got interested in the region’s politics in college and continued in that field of study in graduate school. I studied ethnic politics for the first 10 years, finished my Ph.D. and went to D.C. where I started to work on security and defense issues for a think tank. I have been interested in that field ever since.

Kyiv Post: What exactly is “Problems of Post-Communism?
DG: It is a standard private non-profit and non-academic journal. The goal is to bring academic research to be published in a way that is accessible to the policy community. We strive to be at the intersection between academia and policy in a way that is more rigorous and scholarly than something like Foreign Affairs. There is more emphasis on field research but we try to avoid too much academic jargon, publishing articles that end up being interesting to both scholars and policy people.

Kyiv Post: In Failed Crusade Stephen Cohen criticizes the U.S. for approaching the Soviet Union too lightly, in the sense, that it was too optimistic of the full recovery of Russia after the Perestroika. Do you agree, and have you seen a change in Western scholarly thinking regarding the situation in post-Communist countries in the last decade? 

DG: I think it’s not quite as uniform as he portrays. There was a dominant view, but there are always those who were challenging it in terms of where they thought Russia was going. Certainly some were less familiar with the economic side of it, but on the political science side there were people challenging this idea of the inevitable transition of Russia to being just like us. There was hope and there were attempts; Steve (Cohen) would argue misguided attempts. In Russia there are many people who think this was done deliberately to weaken Russia. I don’t think anyone was being disingenuous. People had an idea on how to improve things and some of them did not favor Russian conditions. Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction and many Americans think the current Russia is the “return of the evil empire.” I think if there’s anything lacking it’s not the lack of models on how to improve relations but just an inability to understand how the other side thinks.

Kyiv Post: Do you see any potential positive results of the 2004 Orange Revolution and what should Ukrainians realize for future nation-building?

DG: It unified part of Ukraine but I am not sure if it unified the entire country.  I think it failed to transform Ukrainians and one reason is because of the infighting between Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko; they were never able to bridge that divide and bring the whole country forward. Certainly there were positive aspects in terms of liberalization and decrease in government control. But, unfortunately, I don’t think there was that much of an effort to fight corruption; new government officials would come in and do a lot of the same things. If you compare the situation with the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Georgians actually dealt with their corruption. For example, in today’s Georgia it is unheard of to give bribes to traffic police, whereas, that was a constant before. There were things that were done. For those years of Yushchenko’s presidency there was a lot of appearance of democracy and freedom but it wasn’t really institutionalized. There was no strong consensus on institutions of democracy because no one had the upper hand –there were “clans” fighting with each other. One really positive achievement that unfortunately didn’t last is the constitution that reduces the powers of the presidency. When that was repealed it again created a system that makes it easier to control a society.

Kyiv Post: How do you see Ukraine’s international position developing since the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych? Do you think Ukraine is becoming more pro-Russian?

DG: Definitely it is more pro-Russian than before. But at the same time there are limits. When Yanukovych was first elected I think there was this period of panic among the anti-Russian, pro-Western group in Ukraine where they thought he was just going to give everything away to Russia. I think he wants to have positive relations with Russia but he wants to have other options as well. In the grand scheme of things even for Moscow and certainly Washington this is just a small part of what they are interested in the world, whereas, if you are in Kyiv this is a much larger part.

Kyiv Post: In the book “Rebounding Identities” you mention that Russia is very strict with preserving the Russian Orthodox Church as its dominant denomination and religious agenda so to speak. What is your opinion on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church?

DG: I think there is a very close cooperation there. The church depends on state support for promoting its agenda but the State also uses the Church for legitimacy or to increase its legitimacy because the Church is a popular and trusted institution. There have been interesting changes with Patriarch Kirill, who seems much more publicly active. He is more of a public persona I would say than Alexey was. Kirill is trying to push some church agenda items such as having chaplains in the military or courses on religion in schools. The point is that they are trying to get the Orthodoxy a little bit more embedded in society.

Kyiv Post: In your opinion how should the West develop its relations with countries like Ukraine and Belarus considering its long-term relations with Russia?

DG: These are countries that are much closer to Russia geographically and so it is inevitable that Russia cares more about its relationship with say Ukraine than the U.S. From that point of view it’s unrealistic to think that we are going to be able to shape this relationship since it is much more important for both Ukraine and Russia. Also, the U.S. is best served by taking ideology out of its foreign policy. For example, there is a lot of discussion about to what extent should we focus on pushing Russia to be more democratic and respect human rights. I think that is important but the tricky thing is not to turn it into lecturing. It’s more useful to do practical things in terms of supporting initiatives and developing positive relationships rather than making grandiose statements. There is one camp in the U.S. that thinks we need to protect Russia’s Near Abroad from Russia. We can’t do that. I would think that the focus would be more on figuring out what the interests are and pragmatically following them.

Kyiv Post: Do you find a fundamentally different thinking in Russia’s policy-making compared to the West? 

DG: I think that Russians have more doubt about Russia’s place in the world, and I think that leads to a lot of philosophizing; whereas, if anything, the U.S. has an overabundance of its certainty about its place in the world and there is less desire for reflection. There is more of “well we know what we stand for so let’s act on it.”

Kyiv Post: How do you see Ukraine’s main differences with other post-communist countries? What makes it different?

DG: I think that the division between eastern (Russian-speaking) and western (Ukrainian-speaking) is the most unique aspect of Ukraine. There are certainly other countries in the former Soviet Union like Kazakh-Russian, Estonian-Russian or Kyrgyz-Uzbek that have ethnic divisions; however, in those cases the divisions are much starker. The interesting thing about Ukraine is that you have this division but it’s much more fluid: there are people that are kind of both. You can see this in surveys where you ask about identity in Ukraine and you give more than two choices. You get a huge percentage that in some way feel both Ukrainian and Russian. That is unique. Today there seems to be division but that is something that could be reconciled and overcome with the right circumstances and the right actions by politicians to unify Ukraine. You do not have to be anti-Russian to also be pro-European or vice versa. Ukraine can really act as that bridge. That can give more hope for the future.

Russian warships head off on exercise, not to prop up Assad

The Russian Navy recently announced that it is sending a number of warships to conduct exercises in the Mediterranean. What’s more, these ships are expected to stop in Tartus, the Russian refueling facility in Syria, and several of the ships are carrying naval infantry. This deployment has obviously raised concern in the West, much as a previous (false) report of Russian marines being sent to Syria did. The New York Times and’s Mark Adomanis both provide a lot of useful information without excessive hype, but I’m not sure either has the whole context. So let me spell out exactly what the deployment involves and provide some of that context.

This is far from the first time in recent years that Russia has sent ships to the Med. What’s more, when Russian ships go to the Med, either for exercises or in transit, they virtually always stop at Tartus. So there’s no cause for alarm there. The Times is right in noting that this current deployment is much larger than previous ones, but (as Ilya Kramnik notes) the West is just going to have to get used to the return of Russian naval presence in the Med and elsewhere.

So what exactly is included in this deployment? From the Northern Fleet, we have the Udaloy class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and three Ropucha class large amphibious ships (Kondopoga, Georgii Pobedonosets and Aleksandr Otrakovskii). From the Baltic Fleet, there is the Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudry. Once they reach the Med, they will be joined by several ships from the Black Sea Fleet, including the ancient but eminently seaworthy Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi and two more LSTs: the Alligator-class Nikolai Filchenkov and the Ropucha-class Tsezar Kunikov. These ships are being supported by a total of three tugboats and two oilers. Furthermore, they may be joined for part of the journey by the Black Sea Fleet’s Neustrashimyy frigate, on its way to participate in the regular counterpiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.

(One note — Mark Adomanis argues that the ships will not arrive in Tartus for several months. This is clearly an error, as the Russian reporting on the deployment indicates that the ships will return to their home ports by early October. I would guess that it will take a couple of weeks for the ships from the Northern Fleet to get to the Med, with the exact timing depending on whether they do any exercises along the way or head directly for Tartus. Smetlivy is supposed to be in Tartus by early next week.)

So that’s a total of eight warships, which more or less matches some of the past big exercises Russia has done in the Med in recent years. The main difference is that this set of exercises seems to be aimed at amphibious landings, given the large number of LSTs and the lack of the really big combat ships such as the Moskva or Peter the Great cruisers that often go on these exercises. This is undoubtedly a signal to various parties that Russia continues to view the region as a strategic priority and will continue to seek to play a role in the Med regardless of its specific position on supporting Bashar al-Assad at any particular moment.

But at the same time, we should keep in mind that although there is a political aspect to this, it is primarily a regular large-scale naval exercise, of the type that Russia has conducted just about every year since 2007 or so. So there’s no reason to read more into this than there is there. These troops will not be used to prop up the Assad regime. They could be used to protect Tartus if necessary, but I think that is highly unlikely, in part because Tartus does not have the facilities to house them for any length of time. Furthermore, as Mark Katz recently pointed out, their presence at Tartus would make the base a more inviting target for anti-regime forces in Syria. They definitely could be used to help evacuate Russian citizens from Syria, should that become necessary. And having LSTs around may be helpful in an evacuation even beyond the troops, as the evacuees could be housed temporarily on the ships.

Predictions on future Russian air force procurement

In a post on his blog, Ilya Kramnik today made a set of predictions regarding upcoming procurement plans for the Russian air force. Here’s a translation:

Combat aircraft:

  • a second contract for 48 Su-35s in 2014 or 2015, with deliveries in 2016-20.
  • a second contract for 24-32  Su-30SMs for naval aviation in 2013-2014, with deliveries in 2015-18.
  • accepting the option on 16 more Su-34s, in addition to 124 already ordered, with deliveries through 2020. An additional large contract may be concluded after 2015, so that the air force has a total of 180-200 Su-34s by 2025.
  • a contract for 48-72 MiG-35s in 2014-15, with deliveries through 2020. Without such a contract, MiG may have to be shut down.
  • a second contract for 12-16 MiG-29Ks for naval aviation is also likely.
  • a contract for 32-40 Su-25SM(or TM)/UBMs, with deliveries in 2017-22.
  • two contracts for T-50 fifth-generation fighter jets. First one would be 8-12 aircraft for the Lipetsk combat training center. That contract is likely to be concluded in 2013, with deliveries in 2014-16. A second contract for 40-60 aircraft is likely to be concluded in 2015, with deliveries scheduled for 2016-22.

Transport and special aircraft:

  • Contract for 30-40 Il-76MD-90As in 2013, with deliveries in 2016-20.
  • Contract for 10 An-124-300s in 2015, with deliveries in 2018-22.
  • Contract for 30-40 An-70s in 2015, with deliveries in 2019-25.
  • 25-30 special purpose Tu-204/214s, with deliveries in 2015-25.
  • Contract for 100 multi-functional transport aircraft in 2015, with delivery of the first 30 in 2019-25.
  • Contract for 40 light transport aircraft in 2015, with deliveries in 2019-24. Strong possibility that these will be foreign aircraft, such as the Italian C-27J Spartan, assembled in Russia under license.

Kramnik further notes that the recent discussion of delays in fulfillment of the State Armaments Program will most likely affect the air force least and the navy the most. I tend to agree. The aircraft industry is in much better shape than the shipbuilding industry (or the tank/artillery industries, for that matter). And the Russian military is less likely to scale back its ambitions for the air force than it is for the navy, which has already largely been consigned to the role of a coastal protection force for the foreseeable future. A delay in the development and construction of new destroyers won’t really affect the functioning of the navy too much at this point (given its current set of missions), as long as it can get its corvettes and frigates more or less on time and the Borei strategic submarines still get built.

Aircraft sales do provide the largest part of the Russian defense industry’s export earnings, however. So the question that arises for me is whether the industry will have the capacity to build all these aircraft in the expected time frame. Here we should distinguish between MiG, which (as Kramnik indicates) is desperate for orders in the aftermath of losing the Indian MMRCA tender, and Sukhoi, which has lots of orders for both the Russian military and foreign customers. Will Sukhoi be able to build all those planes at the same time? Possibly, but it will depend to some extent on the company’s success in modernizing its production facilities.