Indiana University experts comment on events in Ukraine

  • Feb. 25, 2014


Fast-changing events in Ukraine have held the world's attention, with street protests resulting in dozens of deaths and eventually prompting the removal and flight of President Viktor Yanukovych. Indiana University experts from a variety of disciplines share their perspectives on the events.

This tipsheet addresses the following topics:

The U.S. and European Union's response 

Lee A. Feinstein, founding dean of the School of Global and International Studies, has written about Ukraine, drawing upon his experience as diplomat in the region and as a foreign policy advisor to the Obama administration since 2009.
"The EU and the United States need to give tangible support to Ukraine, and soon," said Feinstein, former U.S. ambassador to Poland during President Barack Obama’s first term.
“Russia and Ukraine’s pasts are inextricably linked, but the only viable path for Ukraine’s future leads West. The United States and Europe can and should help to guide Ukraine along that path, making it clear that it stands for the principle that Ukrainians should be free to decide their own future,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein held several senior positions including serving as principal deputy director of the U.S. Department of State’s policy planning staff under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in addition to working on peacekeeping policy in the Department of Defense and as a foreign policy advisor to the Congressional Task Force on the United Nations.

To speak with Feinstein, contact Joanna Davis at the School of Global and International Studies at 812-855-7270 or Top

Signs point to democratic revolution

Is this a revolution going on in Ukraine? And if so, is that a good thing? Those are the questions that come to mind for Padraic Kenney, professor of history and director of the Russian and East European Institute at IU Bloomington.

"All signs are that Ukraine is in fact undergoing a democratic revolution," he said. "The demands of protesters have changed over the last three months but have included political and economic change in line with what Ukrainians believe a closer integration with Europe would give them. Ethnic hatred and extreme populism have remained on the margins. Attempts by leading politicians to co-opt the occupied Maidan have failed.

"And just as in the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-1991, the leadership has left peacefully," said Kenney, who has written extensively about the uprisings in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in those years and who writes about Ukraine for the blog of a political weekly in Poland.

But the question of whether the revolution has a good outcome may take time to answer, he said.

"The next few months will be crucial, as Ukrainians try for the third time in 25 years to build democracy," Kenney said. "Are they more prepared than in 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, or in 2004, the time of the Orange Revolution? Or will the temptations of extreme nationalism and the frustration of ongoing economic hardship derail change again?"

Kenney may be reached at or 812-855-1923. For assistance contact Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or Top

Uprising linked to distrust of Putin

John McCormick, professor of political science in the IU School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, ties the protests that rocked Kiev and drove President Viktor Yanukovych from office to many Ukrainians' mistrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I've seen Putin's hand very much involved in what's happening in Ukraine," he said in a recent interview. "Whether he was a puppet master is difficult to see, but I definitely see Putin behind all of this."

Protesters initially expressed their displeasure over a decision by Yanukovych to turn away from joining the European Union and instead look to Russia for economic and energy assistance.

McCormick is the Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Politics at IUPUI. He has dedicated the bulk of the past two decades to researching and teaching the politics of the European Union and has published books on the EU and European politics. His accomplishments also include establishing a faculty and student exchange between the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI and six European universities, and the Midwest Model European Union, which attracts as many as 180 students from across the region each year.

McCormick can be reached at 317-274-4066 (office) or 317-832-3352 (cell phone). Top

The so-called 'linguistic divide'

The recent turmoil is Ukraine is only the most recent -- and most violent -- chapter of a long-running dispute over how the country should situate itself in relation to its former dominant power, Russia, and its former Cold War enemy, the West. The unrest has once again exposed deeply entrenched divisions between what is often characterized as the “Russian-speaking” East and “Ukrainian-speaking” West of the country.

"While the roots of this division and the political allegiances of Ukrainian citizens are far more nuanced and complex than what these labels suggest, it is certainly the case that the question of what sort of nation Ukraine is and what it should be is often framed around language practices, which can serve as a proxy for more serious issues," said Debra Friedman, an assistant professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at IU Bloomington.

"For some, the continued presence of Russian in Ukraine represents an unwanted remnant of the Soviet past and a symbol of continued Russian influence in Ukrainian affairs, while for others it represents the strong cultural and historical ties that have long connected these two nations and which should not be casually discarded," Friedman said. "For those holding such positions, any attempt to elevate or diminish the status of Russian is not just about language but represents an attack on their conceptualization of what it means to be Ukrainian and is therefore fiercely promoted or resisted.

"Other Russian speakers frame these issues in more personal terms; for them, Russian is simply their native language, the language in which they feel themselves to be most competent, or the language with which they most closely identify. Such individuals may understandably feel uneasy about being marginalized in a country in which Ukrainian language competency is a requirement for social advancement or in which speaking Russian is viewed as a sign of disloyalty to the Ukrainian state.

"Yet it is important not to allow perceptions of this 'linguistic divide' to obscure the fact that most Ukrainians are bilinguals who routinely use both Ukrainian and Russian and who do not necessarily see language choice in such starkly dichotomous terms."

In interviews Friedman conducted with Ukrainian teens from both Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking families in a small city roughly halfway between Kiev and Lviv, she found that most recognized the symbolic value of Ukrainian as the state language and largely opposed proposals to give official status to Russian.

"Nevertheless, they also defended their right to speak any language they wanted and did not necessarily see a conflict between their identification with the Ukrainian nation and their oft-stated preference for speaking Russian in their daily lives, especially among peers," she said. "Indeed, for some of these young people, Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism and 'freedom of linguistic choice' was a defining characteristic of their Ukrainian identity and one that distinguished them from presumably monolingual Russians.

"The presence of this middle ground makes me cautiously optimistic about the future direction of Ukraine in the aftermath of its latest revolution, assuming that its leaders are prepared to embrace it," Friedman said. "Nevertheless, although we cannot reduce the current situation in Ukraine to one of Ukrainian speakers vs. Russian speakers, we must also recognize that the symbolic power of both Ukrainian and Russian means that language differences are potentially exploitable by politicians or ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum both within and outside of Ukraine.

"I therefore hope that the new government will focus on those issues that unite Ukrainian citizens across the so-called linguistic divide -- such as the stagnant economy and the pervasiveness of corruption -- and take care to avoid inflaming an already delicate situation by acknowledging and addressing the legitimate concerns of Russian-speakers. I fear that failure to do so will only serve to delegitimize the government in the eyes of those in the 'pro-Russian' East and plant the seeds for future conflict."

Friedman is an assistant professor in the Department of Second Language Studies in IU Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. Her research focuses on the cultural, political and ideological contexts of language learning and teaching in multilingual communities. Her recent research examines the role of Ukrainian language education in the formation of Ukrainian national identity. She can be reached at or 812-855-2680. Top

Uncertainty is likely to persist until elections

The dramatic changes that have taken place recently in Ukraine mark a new stage in the conflict over the country’s leadership but not an end to the conflict, says Regina Smyth, associate professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. And politicians trying to govern Ukraine between now and elections scheduled for May 25 face tremendous challenges.

“Ukraine emerges from this political turmoil in deep crisis,” Smyth said. “The economy is in dire need of deep and painful economic reforms as well as immediate cash transfusions to avoid default. Russia has cut off its aid package. Western aid is likely but not without conditions and not without some signs of political stability.”

The specter of civil war hangs over Ukraine, Smyth said, as divisions between the country’s Russian and Ukrainian populations are heightened by recent violence and international rhetoric frames the conflict as a contest between the West and Russia.

“But the rhetoric should be taken with a grain of salt,” she said. “There are significant forces mediating against civil war.”

In the coalfields of Eastern Ukraine, ethnically Russian workers have not been radical or well organized, suggesting they will not take to arms. In the Crimea, the significant Tartar minority declared itself on the side of the new Ukrainian government, disappointing the Russian population.

Smyth said former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was released from prison Saturday, may emerge as a candidate both Russia and the West can accept, although she has not committed to a run for office, and it is not clear the opposition would unite behind her. And while Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster as president has bolstered support for Ukraine to join the European Union -- the issue that touched off the protests in November -- that will proceed only after a long period of reform to meet EU membership conditions.

“Still, there is a long time between now and May 25,” Smyth said. “The uncertainty about Ukraine’s future is likely to persist until after that election.”

Smyth's research explores democratic development and elections in post-Communist states. She can be reached at 812-856-2822 or For assistance contact Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or Top

A complex situation to resolve and to cover

A journalism professor who has visited Ukraine while researching sociocultural development and mass media across Eastern Europe said the story of what is happening there defies simplification.

"It's not simply a country divided between East and West," said Owen Johnson, an associate professor of journalism and former director of the Russian and East European Institute at IU. "It's not about Russian speakers versus Ukrainian speakers. It's not just European values versus Russian or post-Soviet ones. It's not just corrupt business and political practices against transparent practices. It's all of these.  

"Some of the inhabitants of the Crimea and the eastern provinces have talked about wanting to become part of Russia, but Russia has generally opposed secession in other countries, so it's not likely to happen here," Johnson added. "Russia's bad economic situation greatly reduces the likelihood of an invasion.

"Even the politics is not so simple. President Viktor Yanukovych was backed by the Party of the Regions and a group of powerful oligarchs. Those who oppose him represent a broad range of political factions from right to left. They have limited common ground. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed from prison late last week, has by most accounts a long record of political and business corruption.

"All of these problems make it difficult for leaders both in Ukraine and outside of it to find a solution for Ukraine. The hardest part is to decide what Ukraine is supposed to be and what it represents," Johnson said.

Johnson noted that foreign correspondents, most of whom have little or no experience in Ukraine, have been parachuting into the country and trying to find a story line. Each has found part of the story. Some have gotten beyond Kiev and have begun to understand the complexity of the situation.

"News organizations need to stay with it because how it comes out will have a great deal to say about the future of the European continent generally and of its security specifically," he said.

Johnson can be reached at 812-855-0506 or He is a historian who focuses his research on the sociocultural roles and functions of journalism in Central and East European societies. For additional assistance, contact George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or Top

Lee A. Feinstein

Lee A. Feinstein

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Padraic Kenney

Padraic Kenney

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John McCormick

John McCormick

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Media Contacts

Steve Hinnefeld

George Vlahakis