Zakaria: How Russia trumped West over Ukraine
February 21st, 2014
12:15 AM ET

Zakaria: How Russia trumped West over Ukraine

CNN speaks with Fareed about the ongoing unrest in Ukraine, why it matters to the West, and why there is little the United States can do.

You have followed this crisis very closely, but many may not. What is this fight about in the Ukraine, and why does it matter so much to the United States and Russia?

If you think of Ukraine, we think of it as a country, we assume it's always been the country with the same borders and the same people. But Ukraine is really divided, and historically has been divided between a western half and eastern half, roughly speaking. The western half of what is now Ukraine used to be part of Poland. So it was only joined after World War II. So that point is in a sense longing to reunite with its European history and heritage.

The eastern part, on the other hand, has long been attached to Russia. So this is a struggle between east and west for the soul of Ukraine. And of course, naturally, Russians feel a natural affinity to the eastern part, and westerners, including in Europe and in the United States, feel that the western part of Ukraine deserves to be in Europe. So it's really a struggle for the soul of Ukraine. As you say, it involves the rest of the world because each side is searching for an identity.

At the beginning of this, we do know that protestors were calling for a close relationship with Europe. But now, we're hearing protestors call for really the overthrow of the Ukrainian government, calling for President Yanukovych to resign and step down. Is that at all a possibility here?

It seems unlikely. It really depends which way the Ukrainian army goes.

That's the key factor in tipping the balance in how this is going to go?

Remember Egypt. That was a case where when Mubarak was president, the army decided they weren’t going to obey any instructions that involved firing on their own people. So the question is, will the Ukrainian army go the way of the Egyptian army, or will it do what the Syrian army has done, which is when there were protests on the street, the government says disburse them by whatever means necessary, and they did it. We don't know, but we know that the head of the army, a key general, was fired. So clearly there's tension there between the government and the army.

President Obama has said there will be consequences if people step over the line. People will remember, not too far in the distant past, the president talking about crossing the red line in Syria. Do you think folks take another line seriously? Does it mean anything at this point?

In the media, we like to think about it that way, but people in Ukraine are listening and watching to what's going on in Ukraine. The reality is we don't have many options. There’s no prospect, as there was in Syria, that the U.S. is going to send troops into the Ukraine or the Europeans are going to send troops. So really the question is could we do something short of that, sanctions? But remember, what would sanctions do? They would isolate the west even more from Ukraine and tie Ukraine and its economy even more closely with Russia.

More from CNN: Ukraine military not taking U.S. calls

In a sense, both sides were trying to woo the Ukraine. The Europeans laid out this economic package for Ukraine, but they said you have got to reform your economy. You have to make it more market oriented – all good stuff. But it was sort of like a slow economic gain.

Very long term. 

Very long term modernization of Ukraine. The Russians put $15 billion on the table, no questions asked, and then they put another $2 billion on the table. So they were playing a kind of fast geopolitical came. We were playing this much slower economic modernization game. And as a result of it, the president, who had not wanted to be part of Europe, said the Europeans are being too fussy, I'm going to go with the Russians instead.

So we should have recognized the stakes were high. We needed to woo Ukraine. There wasn't a sense of strategic urgency, mostly on the part of the Europeans. I think the U.S. was actually prodding Europe to go faster. Europe tends to act in geopolitical terms very slowly.

You can look at long term, near term goals, but there are people dying in the streets. The violence is picking back up. When you talk about sanctions, I think many people are concerned what kind of immediate difference or influence can sanctions play on the fighting we're seeing in the streets? I think people say very little. It's really up to the Ukraine to figure itself out right now.

But we do have this reality, which is Ukraine and large parts of it and probably part of the army think of themselves very differently than Syria or North Korea. And so if there is international condemnation, frankly if the media shines the light, if there are condemnations from President Obama…

It will have more of an impact.

It will have more of an impact. Ukraine wants to think of itself as a modern, developed country. Large parts want to be part of Europe. They don't want to be seen as a third world dictatorship where troops are spraying tear gas on their own people.

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Topics: Europe • Protests • Ukraine

soundoff (98 Responses)
  1. gregory

    Bravo Ukrainians! You are fighting for freedom and dignity. Russians are still sleeping, what a poor nation Do they love being humiliated?

    February 23, 2014 at 6:10 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Really, gregory? Quite the contrary, those protesters in Kiev are an ignorant mob which has been brainwashed by the West to do their bidding for them. Moreover, the C.I.A. is most probably involved in this ignominy too! Now, Ukraine's future looks to be very bleak indeed as it degenerates into rule by the ignorant mob!

      February 23, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
      • theorycraft


        so all the free democratic nations are in on some big conspiracy - and winning the world while all the repressive media-controlled countries are somehow victims unable to get their voice heard? I mean a pro-China Hong Kong mogul was able to take out a full page ad in the NYTimes to give his point why the Sentaku Islands are part of China.. why can't the smart people of these dictatorship nations find a way to get the word out?

        February 23, 2014 at 1:24 pm |
      • northerstar

        The President of Ukraine & his son are both $Billionaires due to the corruption in Ukraine. The EU required a clean up of corruption and a plan to address the debt issue in the Ukraine. After 3 years of negotiations, the President decided on his own to switch 180 degrees, cut off negotiations with the EU and align with Russia to receive 15 Billion in loans. Yes, there were riots, but also a VOTE by the Parliament to force the President to resign and call for new elections. The action by the Parliament was legal (the UK has the same system & functions the same why when the majority in Parliament disagrees with the direction the PrimeMiinister has chosen).

        February 24, 2014 at 8:00 am |
      • JY

        A commie behind every corner.

        February 24, 2014 at 8:11 am |
      • leedfdsA

        why would the u.s spend 5 billion dollars to subvert the Ukraine?

        February 25, 2014 at 3:36 pm |
      • leedfdsA

        the u.s is hardly the most free country in the world. they just keep slipping.

        February 25, 2014 at 3:37 pm |
  2. Matt

    The police suppress people's rights every day via laws for a government, they have a lower standard to what they will do to civilians. Soldiers join to protect there country meaning family so the standard is higher on what they will do to civilians. So the police are used instead of the military because the military will fracture some pro Russian will shoot, some won't. Now why destroy barriers that will melt anyway. Because the crackdown and dispersal and lock down had to come before the warmer weather and more pro west protesters come out and the death toll is higher. The president started it and it got messy and was going to get worse so he pulled the pin. Much to the unhappiness of the Russians. Maybe he did not want massacre his own people, start a civil war. We tend to look at people like Ben Ali as weak and Assad as tough. The Russians tell you to clean house and you don't, that can end in the basement and double tap. What next some hard nuts around the Kremlin would want to invade at least the east and ethnic Russian areas. The GRU would let elections see the results disputes occur then counter protest, the west having a double standard people will be shot. Meanwhile provocateurs government and neo Nazi off their own bat start attacks in the east and ethnic areas. Then the Russians will enter and the Ukrainian army will fracture and low cost occupation. Depends who wins the internal argument the GRU or political hardliners. Half is what they will settle for, but they don't want to settle last resort. Voices out of the Kremlin had been telling him to kill, kill for a week or so. That is what happened. It had a way to go very bloody too bloody for him. How do they protesters repay him threaten to kill him. The pro Russians may win again at elections. The opposition vote will fracture over various factions. There may be infighting. There is plenty still to play out. Then like the border between the enclaves along Georgia every so many hours they move a milimeter closer to Tbilisi.

    February 23, 2014 at 7:57 am |
  3. Jim Clark

    The history of Ukraine is one of Russian occupation in the thirties, the nationalization of farm lands and the forced removal of Ukrainians into Russia and Russians into Eastern Ukraine. The enmity of Ukrainians toward Russia has deep historical roots and in part explains why when Germany declared war on Russia the Germans were viewed as liberators by many Ukrainians. It would appear that the Russians have lost this round and Zakaria's read on what will happen is wrong on most points.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:30 am |
    • leedfdsA

      at first, but then they realized they considered them sub-human...

      February 25, 2014 at 3:42 pm |
  4. MM

    And after this article is written, the Ukraine President leaves... Fareed Zakaria is an anti-American and anti-west idiot,

    February 23, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  5. EdL

    'President Obama has said there will be consequences if people step over the line.' Hilarious! Did He secretly lay down one of His Red Lines over there in the Ukraine? He could not have used the one He laid down for Assad. Assad stomped on that one while smiling. But Obama had the last laugh, the Red Line that Assad stomped on had no substance.

    February 23, 2014 at 11:32 am |
  6. lemkoproject

    Wow. This guy really isn't the expert on Ukraine, as I can see. CNN would do better to talk to a scholar of Ukraine – there are plenty of them at Harvard, Yale, Rutgers, etc.

    February 23, 2014 at 1:43 pm |
  7. svann

    "The reality is we don't have many options."

    I think the obvious option, and what has likely been done, is to send covert support for the revolution. Now the government is toppled and the new government will side with the EU. And Russia naturally will withdraw all financial support.

    February 23, 2014 at 2:09 pm |
    • Jerry Falwell

      Yes svann, Ukraine does indeed face a truly grim future as it degenerates into a failed state ruled by an ignorant mob. Unfortunately, there are no Frenchmen around today to tell you what the reign of terror was like in 1793 after the French Revolution of 1789 or otherwise they'd warn the Ukrainians of this upcoming disaster. At least, the right-wing thugs in Washington seem to be quite happy with this revolting development.

      February 23, 2014 at 4:47 pm |
      • leedfdsA

        its only worse once they begin to join the European union, they will force austerity as a condition of joining. that's when things are going to really escalate.

        February 25, 2014 at 3:38 pm |
      • Gerald O'Hare

        Quite true, leedfdsA. Too bad that most people here are just too dumb to get it!

        February 25, 2014 at 7:15 pm |
  8. Mohammed

    What is this imaginary divide that people keep talking about, between the West and Russia. Russia is a European nation, just like Ukraine, Poland etc. The only reason this divide exists is because the so called "West" wants to isolate Russia, which is a "if you're not with us you're against us" kind of deal. Europe and the US are VERY different from each other, culturally, politically, geopolitically yet we clump them together as "the West". Why? Because they're not a military rival to the US, but because Russia is (was) capable of rivalling us, they instantly get put into a category that is different from the "West".

    February 23, 2014 at 7:14 pm |
    • leedfdsA

      exactly, I never hear of western officials visiting the protesters in turkey, Bahrain and Thailand. those place were as brutal as Ukraine if not worse. not too mention how the west is comfy with places like Saudi Arabia who have a far worse human rights record than Saudi Arabia, its hypocrisy at its finest.

      February 25, 2014 at 3:40 pm |
      • leedfdsA

        I mean Russia instead of Saudi Arabia.

        February 25, 2014 at 3:41 pm |
  9. srsdrgsdrfser

    wow! fareed , you blew this one.

    February 24, 2014 at 7:56 am |
  10. RLTJ's

    And the simple Ukrainians in the streets have no other recourse but to choose the "lesser evil'. And they are divided on that.

    February 28, 2014 at 9:40 pm |
  11. icansee4miles

    Putin just saved the U.S. military budget; no cutbacks-boost the Army budget!! And send the A-10 tankbuster jets that we were going to retire to Ukraine, where they can be used for their stated purpose; destroying Russian Tanks!!

    March 1, 2014 at 12:02 pm |
  12. Kiovan Rus

    The geopolitical village idiot that is modern-day Russia has shown exactly what kind of a friend it is to its neighbours. Now contrast this with the reaction of the EU when the rotten Yanukovich regime walked away from a long-prepared association agreement at the last moment. There were expressions of disappointment, yes, but also reassurances that the door remained open and that mutually beneficial relations would continue to be developed. Two different civilisations in action. Which one would you wish your child to grow up in if you were Ukrainian, or Kazakh or Armenian for that matter? Thank you Mr Putin, goodbye Eurasian Union.

    March 1, 2014 at 6:23 pm |
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