Comic actor Volodymyr Zelensky, who has no political experience but has played the Ukrainian president on television, is leading in the polls ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31. At the same time, last weekend marked five years since Russia annexed Crimea, and fighting in eastern Ukraine, which has killed thousands, continues to this day. Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, joins Deep Dish to explain the latest developments and what to expect next.
Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking about Ukraine, five years after Russia's annexation of Crimea and on the eve of an important presidential election. On March 31st, Ukrainians will vote for the next president, and among the candidates are some familiar faces, such as current president Petro Poroshenko, but there's also a surprising leader in the poll who is a newcomer, Volodymyr Zelensky. He is a 41 year old comedian with no political experience other than, and I'm not making this up, playing the Ukrainian president on a popular Ukrainian TV show. At the same time, this past weekend marked five years since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, an occasion Russian president Putin observed in Crimea this week. Neither Crimea nor the conflict in Donbass, which has killed thousands, seems any closer to resolution. Joining me to help us understand what's going on in Ukraine today is Steven Pifer. He served more than 25 years with the State Department, where he focused on US relations with the former Soviet Union and Europe. He also was the US ambassador to Ukraine between 1998 and 2000. He just came out with a book, "The Eagle and the Trident, US-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times." Welcome, Steve. It's great to have you on Deep Dish.
Steven Pifer: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Brian Hanson: I want to start off with the upcoming election. Help us understand why the polls show so much support for this comedian Zelensky. What does this tell us about what the Ukrainian voters are thinking about and caring about?
Steven Pifer: I would see two factors behind Mr. Zelensky's popularity in the polls. First of all, he's a new face. Second, it reflects, I believe, a significant degree of frustration on the part of a significant segment of the Ukrainian electorate that more progress has not been made since 2014 and the Maidan Revolution. Particularly coming to terms with corruption and the oligarchic culture in the Ukraine.
Brian Hanson: Talk to us about corruption, because this was a big issue in 2014, as people may remember. What are the current frustrations? Has it gotten better or worse? Why is there so much concern?
Steven Pifer: To its credit, Ukraine has accomplished a lot in the last five years, particularly from 2014 to 2016, but many Ukrainians still feel that the corruption picture hasn't changed. You still have lots of reporting about senior officials who owned houses, who own cars that are far beyond the reach of their incomes. But also, it's the question of Ukraine's oligarchs, people of great wealth who wield political influence. That really has a huge impact on the system. For example, they use that to work with the government to keep potential competitors out. It's held Ukraine back. I believe that this has been a big factor behind the polls for Mr. Zelensky, who now polls between 20% and 25% in most polls. I think almost every poll now has him as the leading candidate for the March 31st election.
Brian Hanson: I understand that in Ukraine they have a two round process for the presidential election. It's actually a lot like the mayoral election in Chicago, whereas there's the poll that will take place at the end of March, here on the 31st, and then if no candidate receives an absolute majority, there is a run-off election at that time. Is some of the support that we see for Zelensky likely to stand up through that second round or is this primarily a signifier of protest against the current regime, but once it comes time to maybe that second round, voters are going to go in a different direction? Do we have any sense of that?
Steven Pifer: That is really the big question. Under Ukrainian law, in order to win the election outright you have to get 50 percent of the vote plus one. No one's going to get that on March 31st. So, the question is, who gets into the second round? I think Mr. Zelensky's going to make it and then either the current incumbent Petro Poroshenko, the president, gets in or Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister gets in. But, bear in mind, there are almost 40 candidates on the ballot. So, there are a large number of people who are getting single digits. The big question will be is that when you get Zelensky and either Poroshenko or Zelensky and Tymoshenko in that second round, where do all of those votes go? At this point, that's really hard to predict. If I could add, this is actually one really good thing about Ukrainian democracy, is we are less than two weeks from the election, less than five weeks from the runoff, and nobody can really predict who's going to be the president. You can contrast that with Ukraine's neighbor Russia, where in 2013 we all knew who was going to be the president in the 2018 election. So, this is a good thing that we don't know this, but it really does leave things open and it makes predictions very difficult.
Brian Hanson: You were talking about the protest or pushback against the incumbents, against the oligarchy. I was wondering, do you see parallels between the politics in the current election in Ukraine and some of the populist movements that have been identified in Western Europe as well as in the United States? Is there any parallel or is that a false way to think about the politics in Ukraine?
Steven Pifer: There's a little bit of that I think in Ukraine. For example, Mr. Zelensky himself, he really is running on the basis of being a new face and the fact that for three years now he's portrayed a Mr. Common Man as president of Ukraine on television. But, he hasn't really outlined much in the way of policy and he seems to be someone who has a lot of confidence but also may be inclined to go with his instincts. It's not yet clear who he has in mind for his team were he to be elected, so there's a blank slate there. On the other hand, another candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko, has adopted a program that many folks have called populist. For example, she's called for lowering the price of energy that's provided to households and utilities. That's a tricky question, because raising those prices to at least cover the cost of producing electricity and household heating was a big demand of the International Monetary Fund. She's adopted an approach that's trying to say look, we can walk back some of the reforms the last several years to make it easier for people. That would put her though, if she were to be president, immediately in a difficult situation vis-a-vis the International Monetary Fund. So, you do see some of these trends as candidates are trying to identify the best path to receiving a winning majority in the election.
Brian Hanson: Let's just pause on her for just another moment, because she's a long time figure in Ukrainian politics. Has she adapted her positions in order to move in this more populist direction or are these things that she has long advocated for?
Steven Pifer: Her party was part of the pro-government coalition in 2014, but they've separated themselves over the last three years and been critical of things, including some of the reforms that the government has adopted, some of which were in compliance with agreements and commitments they made to the International Monetary Fund in order to secure low interest credits. Miss Tymoshenko in some ways may be the smartest political actor in Ukraine, but she also probably labors under the fact that she has been in Ukrainian politics now for some 20 years and many of the voters may see her as part of the old guard. So, if they're looking for new faces, that works against her.
Brian Hanson: One of my favorite parts in preparing for this conversation was that I noted that there is someone with her same name that has been put on the ballot as well in order to divide the vote even further. Dirty tricks throughout the world.
Steven Pifer: Exactly. The same name, and it shows up. Obviously, it's on the ballot. It'll be right next to hers. It's an effort to have people make mistakes and take votes away from her. This is one of the things where Ukrainian democracy, at this point, is not yet close to perfect.
Brian Hanson: One of the big dividing issues back in 2014 was Ukraine's orientation in the world. Fundamentally, to over simplify, whether Ukraine was going to align more closely with the EU and Brussels or more closely with Russia and Putin. Where does that debate lie today? Is that a settled issue or is that still being contested in, for example, this presidential election?
Steven Pifer: For most of the country, I believe it's a settled issue. What you saw in the Maidan Revolution back in 2014 was people basically, what drew them out in the streets originally, was a protest when then President Yanukovych decided he was not going to sign an association agreement with the European Union. You saw people basically said no, we want European values. We want a normal European lifestyle. That feeling has only intensified in the last five years as the result of Russia's seizure of Crimea and in the war that Russia has conducted against Ukraine and the eastern region of the Donbass. Over the last several years, you've seen polls now showing pluralities, and in some cases even majorities of those asked saying not only should Ukraine seek to join the European Union, but Ukraine should seek to join NATO. In fact, last month, Ukraine's parliament, by a huge majority, adopted a constitutional amendment that makes membership in both the European Union and NATO strategic goals for Ukraine. Prior to 2014, you never saw that kind of sentiment to go West. And I think this has really been a direct result of the conflict that Vladimir Putin has conducted against Ukraine over the last five years, including 13,000 dead in the Donbass region.
Brian Hanson: Russia of course has, and under Putin's leadership, has been interfering with elections throughout the world. Is there an expectation that Russia will be or has been meddling in the Ukrainian elections?
Steven Pifer: There's certainly a lot of attention being paid to that whether Russia uses social media or cyberattakcs, there's concern in Ukraine for example about the ability to protect their electronic voting systems from a cyber attack. But it's also a difficult question for Russia because, believe me, no candidate running for President on March 31st wants to be seen as Moscow's favorite. That's the kiss of death. And what the Russians have done is they've made very clear they don't wanna see Mr. Poroshenko be reelected, but they've also been careful not to do anything that would look like endorsing someone because they know that would be a huge blow to that person's prospects.
Brian Hanson: It will be very interesting to see how things come out. I'm here with Steven Pifer, the former Ambassador to Ukraine and now at Stanford University. And I wanna shift our conversation to look at Crimea. As I'd mentioned up top, this is five years after Russian annexation of the peninsula. I wanna ask you a question that was suggested by Deep Dish listener Yuriy Makar, who asked on our Facebook group, and you'll see it's a pretty sophisticated question. Is there any hope that the US and the EU can stop Russian occupation of Crimea when Georgia's areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been occupied by Russian troops since 2008 and Moldova's area of Transinistria has been occupied by Russian troops since 1992?
Steven Pifer: Analytically, it's very difficult to see. It's hard to see how Ukraine musters the political, the economic, the military leverage to draw Crimea back. I think the one option I could see would be if Ukraine really did fully embrace the new economic reforms, pushed back against corruption, drew in foreign investment and had a booming economy and all of a sudden people in Crimea begin to say, "Hey, our economic lot in life would be better back as a part of Ukraine," but absent that it's hard to see how Crimea does that. Or how Ukraine develops that leverage. But having said that, I still think it's important that the West maintain the policy of nonrecognition of Crimea's illegal annexation, and it's important to maintain the sanctions, if for no other reason than to signal to Russia that these kinds of land grabs are not acceptable in 21st century Europe.
Brian Hanson: And I wanna get back to that question of sanctions in just a moment. Before I go there, another Deep Dish listener, Christina Irene Collins asked on our Facebook group something I think a lot of folks would probably admit to. She says, "I'm wondering whether there is still a way underway in eastern Ukraine. I'm a bit embarrassed that I don't know." What is the state of affairs out in eastern Ukraine and the Donbass region?
Steven Pifer: I use the term simmering conflict. It's not a frozen conflict because virtually every day the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, it's monitors report firing across the land of contact. And every week the Ukraines report one or two soldiers killed and a number injured. The fighting is going on, albeit at a low intensity, and what you're seeing, I believe, is an effort by the Kremlin to keep that conflict simmering as a mechanism to put pressure on Kiev to distract it, to destabilize it, to make it harder for the Ukrainian government to pursue both needed domestic reforms, but also to make it harder for the Ukrainians to draw closer to Europe.
Brian Hanson: And in terms of the reaction in Russia, this was of course a war that Putin first tried to deny even existed, including to his own people. What is the level of domestic support in Russia for the continuing simmering conflict as you put it?
Steven Pifer: There's a huge difference between Crimea and the simmering conflict in Donbass. Crimea was hugely popular, or the seizure of Crimea was hugely popular with the Russian people, in part because Russia had a historical claim to Crimea, but it was also relatively quick, it was relatively bloodless. You're not seeing that level of support for the quagmire that's now going on in Donbass and the Russian government does things like, it hides the fact that Russian soldiers are dying in Donbass. You see stories, for example, about being soldiers' bodies returned to families and told that your son was killed in a training accident and then the family talks to some of his fellow soldiers who say, "Well, no actually he died in Ukraine." The Russians are trying to keep their level of involvement as low as possible. They say that there are volunteers in Ukraine, but they continually deny that there's any part of the Russian army there, although most analysts say at least at the command levels, it's a Russian military operation.
Brian Hanson: Is there any sense that popular opinion in Russia could cause a change in policy? Or is Putin pretty well free to continue on this path?
Steven Pifer: I'm not sure that Donbass is going to be the issue that pushes things over the edge. You have seen, over the course of the last year, an erosion in Putin's popularity that reflects I believe a number of factors. One was the government's decision last year to raise the pension age. So for example, for men it went from 60 to 65. For women, it went from 55 to 60. That was very unpopular. But I think it also reflects unhappiness that the economy is not doing better. For the last several years you've seen stagnant growth at one to one-and-a-half percent. Part of that, a big part of that is the result of Western economic sanctions. There are things that are eroding Putin's popularity. The Donbass and then sanctions that are a result of Russian involvement in Donbass are a part of that. But it's a combination of factors, and I'm not sure that the fighting in Donbass itself is going to push Putin over the edge. The question though does become, and this is where I would argue Western sanctions are important is, can we find a way to change the cost benefit analysis in the Kremlin? You get the Russians to the point where they really are trying to find a way to get out of Donbass. At least end that conflict, end the fighting there.
Brian Hanson: That's a perfect transition for where I wanted to go, which was to the question of sanctions. Or course, the United States is imposing sanctions on Russia, not only for the Crimea annexation but also back in November, the recent Russian attack on Ukrainian ships. Could you remind us what the nature of these sanctions are and is there any fundamental change in the way the Trump Administration is approaching the challenges over Ukraine versus what had come before?
Steven Pifer: The United States, the European Union and other countries, for example Australia, have applied a range of sanctions on Russia that are related both to the seizure of Crimea, but the heavier sanctions really are related to Donbass. They involve sanctions, visa sanctions and financial sanctions on Russian individuals, but they also involve sanctions on Russian entities and on certain areas of the Russian economy. For example, high tech, the financial sector, the energy sector. They have had an impact. Most economists assess that the effect of the sanctions is probably somewhere between three-quarters and one percent of Russian gross domestic product. In an economy that's only growing about one-and-a-half percent a year, that's a fairly sizable impact. Those sanctions have not yet pushed Russia to either end the war it's conducting in Donbass or to give back Crimea. But I would argue that the sanctions probably have kept the Russians from doing other things. There was for example, in 2015 a lot of concern that Russian and Russian proxy forces might move to seize the port city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, which is the logical export port for Donbass. And it didn't happen, and my guess is that one factor was the Russians understood that that kind of operation, which would have required direct Russian military participation, would have provoked much heavier sanctions. For all the sanctions that have been imposed over five years, on a scale of one to 10, we're probably somewhere just around three or four. There's a lot more the West could do if it wanted to do so.
Brian Hanson: How interested has the Trump Administration been in confronting Russia? One of the things that you advocated for with Ivo Daalder back in response to the Russian aggression was to provide defensive arms to Ukrainian troops, which my understanding is this administration had done in a way that the Obama administration had not done. Is the Trump administration actually taking a harder line here?
Steven Pifer: The Trump administration has continued the sanctions and as you said, they took a step that the Obama administration was not prepared to do, which is they have provided lethal military assistance in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. When I look at the administration policy overall, I think what you've seen over the last two years is really a continuation of the toughening policy that you saw in the last couple of years of the Obama administration. It's very much what one might expect from a mainstream Republican approach. It's supportive of Ukraine and it's very worried and skeptical about Russia. The only asterisk I would attach to that assessment is I'm not sure that the President believes in this whole approach. You've seen, for example, efforts by Congress really to have to lock the president in on additional sanctions. I'm not sure, if left to his own devices, he would have pursued the policy that we've seen over the last two years.
Brian Hanson: Yeah, and turning to cooperation with Europe, some have been concerned with increasing discord between Europe and the United States and Trump administration's words and attitudes toward Europe, that cooperation could be more difficult on areas where there's potential shared interests. To what extent have the Europeans been partners on the sanctions issue? As you point out, there's been a tightening of sanctions in the Trump administration. Has there been good cooperation, or have the tensions between the US and Europe showed up in terms of creating challenges for coordinating around things like sanctions?
Steven Pifer: There seems to be pretty good coordination between Washington and Brussels on continuing the sanctions. I guess I'd make a couple of points about Europe and sanctions. First of all, we in America have to remember that when we adopt sanctions, Europe probably had 10 times as much trade with Russia as the United States did. So these sanctions are having a heavier impact on European companies than on American companies. The second point I would make is that, had you asked analysts back in 2014 where Europe would be on sanctions five years down the road, that is today in 2019, my guess is not many would have predicted that Europe would have held steady on the sanctions. I give credit to this to German Chancellor Merkel. She really has steered the European Union on this path of maintaining sanctions, even though you can see in countries such as Hungary and in Italy a desire maybe to move past sanctions and get back to something like business as usual with Russia. But so far the Europeans have stayed committed on the sanctions question.
Brian Hanson: What do you see for the future? Is that likely to continue? Chancellor Merkel's political future has an end date on it. Is there the requisite leadership to continue that level of sanctioning?
Steven Pifer: That's a really good question, and I'm not sure I feel comfortable about the answer because you are beginning to see more, as I said in places like Hungary, in Italy, I'd put Greece in that same category, saying these sanctions haven't worked. I would disagree with that, but they say maybe it's time to get back to a different approach. It seems to me that if the sanctions fall away, then the message to the Kremlin is that you can do something like Crimea, the most blatant land grab in Europe since the end of World War II. You can conduct a war in Europe with now 13,000 dead, and the price for it is not that high. That's not a calculation we want the Kremlin to make, and I hope that the Europeans will continue to see that.
Brian Hanson: So on the other side of this, you've made the point that sanctions are to put pressure on Russia in order to stop its actions in eastern Ukraine, in particular. Do you see prospects for some sort of resolution or moving that conflict to a different place than it is now?
Steven Pifer: Perhaps. My guess is that in Moscow they're going to wait and see what happens in the presidential election, and then Ukraine also has parliamentary elections at the end of October. There may well be a hope in Moscow that as a result of these elections there's a political alignment and Kiev that somehow becomes more amenable to what the Russians would like to work out. My own sense is that's wishful thinking, but I don't think you're going to see real movement or a readiness in Russia to consider a change in policy course until the end of the year. At that point, if the Russians are still confronted with a Ukrainian government that is prepared to resist Russia, that continues to focus on moving towards the West, perhaps there is a reassessment in the Kremlin about whether this policy is working or not. There have been some ideas out there that might offer a path; for example, the introduction of a United Nations peacekeeping force. But we won't know that until the end of the year at the earliest.
Brian Hanson: So, Steve, as we close, I want to ask you to do something that's incredibly hard, which is look into the future. If you look back at where things are for Ukraine in, say, five years, and if you look at politically, economically, in terms of the country's security, are you optimistic or pessimistic about what things will be like in five years and why?
Steven Pifer: A little bit of both. I'm optimistic in that I think Ukraine has the potential to change, but it requires that in the elections or at these elections there's a leadership that really is prepared to do the critical mass of reforms. That means coming to full terms with the corruption problem and reducing the outsized political influence of oligarchs. They have to do that, and that opens up the potential, I think, of the economy, which is growing at maybe 2 1/2 to 3 percent a year now, but for a country in Ukraine's place should be growing at, say, 5 to 6 percent a year. So there's that question. Then there's the very difficult issue where are the Russians going to go. Russia would like to bring Ukraine back into Moscow's orbit. I don't see that happening. But Russia then seems to be determined that if it can't have Ukraine in its orbit, to hold the country back, to basically try to destabilize it and disrupt it. That's going to be the main foreign challenge that Ukraine faces. The question to my mind is that at some point does the Kremlin conclude that this policy is not working, that the costs exceed the benefits? At least, can you move to end the bloodshed and try to restore some measure of normalcy in the Donbass, although Crimea is going to be a burden to both the Ukraine-Russia relationship and the West-Russia relationships for years, if not decades, to come.
Brian Hanson: Well, that's to keep our eye on there. Steven Pifer, the former US ambassador to Ukraine and the author of the new book "The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times," thanks so much for being on Deep Dish and giving us a sense for what's going on in Ukraine, a place that many folks have kind of lost touch with, as was indicated by our Facebook listeners. Thanks for helping bring us up to date and understand the dynamics in play there now.
Steven Pifer: Thanks very much.
Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you like the show, join us at the Council on Thursday, March 28th, for a special event on Russia. Former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and Angela Stent of Georgetown University will be here discussing what is behind Putin's foreign policy. Register to attend or watch the livestream on our website, thechicagocouncil.org. I'd also invite you to join our Facebook group, Deep Dish and Global Affairs. There you can ask our guests follow-up questions on anything you've heard today or submit questions for upcoming guests. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.