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The Conflict Inside Ukraine Is More Than An East-West Divide


The crisis in Ukraine and Russia's action there has raised many questions about who wants what. We're joined now by Julia Ioffe, senior editor at The New Republic, formerly a correspondent for The New Yorker from Moscow. Thanks very much for being with us.

JULIA IOFFE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What do you see that's going on that's distinct from the way it's been cast in so many accounts as some people being pro-European in Ukraine, some people being pro-Russia?

IOFFE: You know, I arrived in Kiev just after the shooting stopped and right before Yanukovych fled the country. And what struck me was that by this point this was not about Russia and it was not about Europe and it was certainly not about the U.S. It was about Yanukovych and his corruption and the way the kind of thuggish way he ran the country and about the kind of country these people wanted to live in. The other misconception you hear a lot about Ukraine is the East-West divide, that the West speaks Ukrainian and wants to be part of Europe and that the East speaks Russian and wants to be part of Russia, and that's not quite true. First of all, everybody speaks Ukrainian. Everybody speaks Russian. There are more Ukrainian speakers in the West and more Russian speakers in the East. But historically, it's been a rural-urban divide. So, the rural areas speak Ukrainian and the cities and the industrial areas speak Russian. Now, it's become a generational divide. So, older people, for example, of Vladimir Putin's generation and even a bit younger think the way he does. So, for example, in 2008 at a Russian NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, he told George W. Bush, who was then our president, he said, you know, George, what is Ukraine really? It's not a real country; you realize that, right? And there are people who really think that, who think that the way that the Soviet Union was carved up into these individual countries has created a lot of fictitious borders and fictitious countries. But what I found in Donetsk and the Russian-speaking southeast of Ukraine was that people born after 1991 into an independent Ukraine identified as Ukrainian, regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of their language preference. There's very much a generational divide.

SIMON: The question that seems to raise itself every few hours here, is this divide so deep and so serious that the two groups that you described can't inhabit the same country safely?

IOFFE: No, absolutely not. This is not kind of a civil war in the making, and I hope I don't have to eat my words. But what you're seeing a lot of in Ukraine now is not that there's this external threat from Russia that you have people rallying around the flag, even if they're ethnically Russian. One of the problems in Ukraine is that it's inherited this kind of centralized political system. So, for example, like Russia, it doesn't have gubernatorial elections. Everything is kind of administered from Kiev. So, regions send about 80 percent of their budgets or their tax revenues back to Kiev and wait to get some back. And inevitably you're going to have, much like in the U.S. actually, you're going to have one group that's unsatisfied when the other group is in power but that doesn't mean that the country has to split up or devolve into civil war. I mean, look at the U.S. You know, a vote for Mitt Romney or a vote for Ted Cruz isn't a vote for, you know, Texas secession or splitting the country along a red-blue divide.

SIMON: Do you, looking from your vantage, see that President Putin has some overall ambition?

IOFFE: One of the things that Western analysts have gotten consistently wrong is his attachment to his reputation in the West and his attachment to money. There are things that he values above that. He wants a place in history. He sees himself as the leader who came in and restored Russia's greatness, its economic power, its stability after a couple of decades of stagnation and chaos. I think he wants to in some ways recreate the Soviet space, and I don't think he wants to cobble together the Soviet Union again, but I think he does want to make that space once again a Russian space, 'cause the Soviet space was in fact the Russian space. This is why there are so much resentment, for example, in the Baltic countries of having, you know, the Russian language imposed on them. You have a similar feeling in Western Ukraine. You know, whether he does that through the customs union that he's building or the Eurasian union, I don't know, but I don't think we're going to see a, you know, USSR 2.

SIMON: Julie Ioffe, senior editor at The New Republic. Thanks so much.

IOFFE: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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