Indiana University

IU experts comment on developments in Ukraine

  • March 3, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Russia sent thousands of troops into Crimea over the weekend, raising tensions over the Ukraine crisis and heightening the stakes for the U.S. and other Western countries. Indiana University experts offer their perspectives on the latest events as well as issues of language and the role of women in the recent Ukrainian uprising.

Perspectives from other Indiana University experts on Ukraine are available in a previous tip sheet. This tip sheet addresses the following topics:

Russia's 2008 Georgia invasion foreshadowed Crimea action

Russia's aggressive response to the public uprising and change of leadership in Ukraine is disturbing but not surprising, says Robert Kravchuk, a professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs and an expert on Ukraine.

Russia sees Ukraine, and not just Crimea, as important both strategically and culturally, he said. It is "the cradle of Russian civilization" and a neighboring country where many ethnic Russians live and the Russian language is widely spoken.

Kravchuk says Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled with the 2008 invasion of Georgia that he wouldn't hesitate to use force to protect its interest in neighboring states. A key question, he adds, is how the United States and other Western countries will respond.

"It should be an important objective of U.S. foreign policy to deny Russia Ukraine," he said.

Kravchuk lived in Ukraine for two years in the 1990s, working for the U.S. Treasury Department and advising the government. He has written three books and numerous journal articles about Ukraine and its history, economy and governance. He made several points about the current situation:

  • The protests that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from office were disciplined and strategic. Protesters kept their composure even when police fired on the crowds and dozens were killed. “This is the first time there has been a broad-based movement where Ukrainians stood up for their rights. This was really quite meaningful. It wasn’t just a mob out there in the streets.”
  • While ethnic and language factors play a role in the political division of Ukraine, the split that matters is between the approximately two-thirds of the people who look to the West as a source of inspiration and the one-third who look to Russia.
  • Millions of Ukrainians died between 1930 and 1945 from famine, Soviet repression and World War II, and the memory of that era produced a “bedrock consensus” that political violence should be avoided. “This consensus was broken at some point,” he said. “People had enough.”

To speak with Kravchuk, contact Jim Hanchett at 812-856-5490 or, or Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or Top 

Claims of protecting ethnic Russians manufacturered, based on historic atrocities against Tatars

Despite Russian claims to the contrary, Ukraine is culturally and by disposition European, as it has been, more often than not, since the emergence of Kiev as a major medieval city, said Edward Lazzerini, director of both the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center at IU Bloomington.

"In the recent unfolding sequence of steps that has all the earmarks of being part of a war-room plan, Putin has revealed himself, once again, as a shrewd and calculating politician bent upon repeating his 2008 success in Georgia and furthering his efforts to extend Russian influence in the 'Near Abroad,' where substantial ethnic Russian populations dwell," said Lazzerini, the only historian in the U.S. who has a consistent record of studying the Crimean region, visiting it many times.

"This makes decidedly bad news for Ukraine, in which ethnic Russians predominate in its eastern districts and in Crimea, and it may fairly be seen as a prelude for what will transpire in the absence of any concrete opposition," he added. "Dismayingly, all of Putin’s maneuvers are countered by reports that NATO has no plan A, B or C in place for any kind of response; nor has the EU or the United States, apparently. As an authoritarian, Putin understands democratic nations: They do not plan well for what should be anticipated developments but tend to wait until disaster strikes. Striking in these circumstances is child’s play for such as Putin, accomplishes what is hard to undo after the fact by others, and at worse creates opportunities for negotiating over what ought not to be negotiable in the first place."

Lazzerini noted that the historical context for today was set in the early hours of May 18, 1944, all across the Crimean Peninsula, where Tatars lived as they had since the 15th century.

"Brusquely aroused from their slumber, terrified families were instructed that they had 30 minutes to gather outside with whatever they could carry. Thus began implementation of Joseph Stalin’s hasty order to more than 30,000 NKVD (secret service) troops for the forcible deportation of nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars," he said.

At the same time, Crimean Tatars serving in the Red Army were demobilized and transferred to forced labor camps.

"Soviet documents eventually released, and surveys by Tatar activists in the 1960s, corroborate the staggering toll: Nearly 50 percent of the deportees died in the first 30 months of exile," he said. "On its annual anniversary since, Crimean Tatars have recalled the painful memory of the sürgünlik (the day of genocide) not just in Crimea, to which about one-half have succeeded in returning over the past five decades, but elsewhere in Central Eurasia, in Turkey, and even the United States.

"To replace the deported Tatar families, ethnic Russians were 'imported' into the peninsula, contributing to a further fiction that Crimea was Russian territory, whether imperial, Soviet or post-Soviet," Lazzerini said.

The sürgünlik was only the latest episode in an old story: the repetitive outflow of native Tatars from the region in the face of Russian pressure since the late 18th century. During the next century, hundreds of thousands of Tatars settled in Romania and Anatolia, where today about 5 million descendants live.

"Had these episodes of forced exodus not occurred, the ethnic distribution of Crimea’s population would be vastly different today," he said. "To whom, then, does the peninsula rightly belong?"

Lazzerini is director of both the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, coordinator of the Volga-Kama Initiative and an adjunct professor of history. He can can be reached at 812-856-0671 or For additional assistance, contact George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or Top

Women play key roles in Ukraine protests, civil society

Ukrainian women have played essential roles in the protests that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from office, says Indiana University Bloomington anthropology professor Sarah Phillips, the author of two books on contemporary Ukraine.

"Women have been especially active in work related to provision of medical services, food preparation and distribution, and information gathering and dissemination," she said. "Women have also ‘manned,’ so to speak, the barricades in Kiev, and women have organized themselves into self-defense units in Kiev and Ternopil."

Sociological surveys show that 47 percent of those active in the Maidan protest activities are women, Phillips said. Highlights include:

  • Member of parliament Lesya Orobets wore a bulletproof vest to parliament in late January to protest the fact that police were firing on protesters, drawing world attention to the escalating violence.
  • Physician Olga Bogomolets, now a likely candidate for minister of health, has coordinated and supervised much of the Maidan-related medical care, and members of feminist groups have staffed 24-hour hospital vigils over injured protestors.
  • Women are using social media for vibrant discussions of the roles women play in society and politics. One Facebook group is called “Half of the Maidan: Women’s Voice of Protest.”

"In Ukraine we have seen civil society, broadly defined as the self-organization of society, in vibrant action as citizens of different backgrounds and political commitments have worked together," Phillips said. "EuroMaidan stands for social and political change, and for many women who have played immensely important and active roles in the protests, it represents a chance to change the gender culture of Ukraine -- traditionally a patriarchal society with strong gender role stereotypes. Let’s hope that these women’s voices, in all their diversity, continue to shape reforms in post-Maidan Ukraine."

Phillips is the author of "Ukraine: Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation" and "Disability and Mobile Citizenship in Postsocialist Ukraine." She can be reached at For assistance, contact Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or Top

Language law an important issue in Ukraine

Along with last weekend's ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych came the repeal of a language law that led to heated discussion in Ukrainian society in 2012. Svitlana Melnyk, a lecturer in Slavic languages and literatures at Indiana University Bloomington and a native of Ukraine, said this was important to her country regaining its national identity.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, newly independent Ukraine introduced its official monolingualism, with Ukrainian as the sole state language. But the 2012 language law allowed for the use of Russian and other "regional languages" in courts and certain government operations.

"For post-Soviet independent countries and Ukraine in particular, the state language has symbolic meaning and a great symbolic value in the process of nation building. This is a national symbol along with the flag and anthem," said Melnyk, a faculty member in IU's School of Global and International Studies who has researched bilingualism in Ukraine.

"The language issue is highly politicized in Ukraine, and its future management heavily depends on the evolving political situation," Melnyk added. "The Ukrainian parliament abolished the language law. This means that a new language law should be developed and adopted. I believe that Ukrainian has to be the only state language in Ukraine. At the same time, the law should consider the current sociolinguistic situation and protect the languages of national and ethnic minorities in the country."

Melnyk can be reached at 812-855-1868 or For additional assistance, contact George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or Top

Robert Kravchuk

Robert Kravchuk

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Edward Lazzerini

Edward Lazzerini

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Sarah Phillips

Sarah Phillips

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Svitlana Melnyk

Svitlana Melnyk

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Media Contacts

Steve Hinnefeld

George Vlahakis