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Q&A with Russia expert Graeme Robertson

All eyes are on Ukraine and Russia as the countries begin to show signs of a relapse into fighting. With the United States sending support to Ukraine, and Russia sending soldiers to the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, many fear the tension between the two countries might never have improved to begin with.

Staff writer Hallie Dean spoke with Graeme Robertson, a UNC political science professor, about the current conflict. Robertson graduated from Harvard University with a masters degree in Russian, East European and Central Asian studies. He is a specialist in Russian politics.

The Daily Tar Heel: Give a brief summary of the key events of the Russia-Ukraine conflict of the past year or so.

Graeme Robertson: Back in the fall of 2013, the Ukrainian president was facing a decision about whether to sign a corporation agreement with the EU, but he decided not to, and it was a big deal with Russia. This generated some protests on the streets, which led to repression of the protestors. The protests came to a head with violence on behalf of the protestors and of the government in response.

There were attacks on government buildings and armories. Pro-Russians began mimicking this in eastern Ukraine, declaring themselves independent. What is clear is that there is a big political divide between Eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine. With U.S. support, the Ukrainian government used military force to get the separatists out, which made progress until the Russians began to support the separatists.

DTH: What’s happened in Ukraine since the fall, when a cease-fire was supposedly called?

GR: There was always some fighting going on, but it is reaching new levels. It has been very serious, just not talked about as much. I think the casualty rates have escalated greatly in the last week.

DTH: How did the U.S. respond?

GR: The U.S. has seen this basically as an issue between the U.S. and Russia. It has been supportive of the Ukrainian government and has created very strict economic sanctions against Russia.

It has tried to target these sanctions on individuals in Russia who are high up in the regime or seem to be associated with the policies involving Ukraine. It has also provided non-lethal equipment to the Ukrainian army, and there are now talks of the U.S. arming it.

DTH: Why would the U.S. consider arming the Ukrainian rebels?

GR: The central battlefield with Russia has moved since the end of the Cold War from being Eastern European countries to being parts of the former Soviet Union, so from a U.S. perspective, it is about spreading democracy.

It sees Ukraine as an important place of potential democratization, so if it can secure Ukraine, this would undermine Moscow and Putin — Ukraine is a strategically important place.

DTH: Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev accused the U.S. of drawing Russia into a new Cold War and foresees this escalating into an armed conflict. Is he right?

GR: I don’t foresee anything like this happening; Russia is just not that important any more. That does not mean that we aren’t about to enter a period of bad relations between the U.S. and Russia. This may have implications for U.S. policy in the rest of the world, specifically places like Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.

A long-term conflict between Russia and the U.S. would be bad for both countries, but it seems almost certain that this is not going away unless there is a major change of regime, including Russia removing Putin from power.

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