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Boston College Experts: Crisis in Ukraine

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Jonathan Laurence

Jonathan Laurence
Associate Professor of Political Science
office: 617.552.8991
cell: 617-230-0387
Faculty website

Laurence is nonresident senior fellow in Foreign Policy studies at the Brookings Institution. His research interests are transatlantic relations, Islam in the West, European politics, and North Africa/Turkey. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books; Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France (Brookings Institution Press, 2006) and  The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims: The State’s Role in Minority Integration (Princeton University Press 2012). Prof. Laurence’s research has been featured in the Washington Post and on National Public Radio, and his articles have been published by European Political Science, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, International Crisis Group, Le Monde, The New York Times, Perspectives on Politics, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Der Tagesspiegel  and other US and European periodicals and think tanks. He is completing a new book comparing the evolution of state-Islam relations in Turkey, Morocco, and Western Europe.


MAY 23, 2014

It has been cast as a vote to restore credibility in government and stability to its people, but Sunday's general election in Ukraine may be undermined by continued violence in parts of the country, along with a significant portion of citizens who won't go to the polls. The death of 16 Ukraine soldiers yesterday at the hands of pro-Russia insurgents is casting a shadow over the election.

“They want to be annexed,” says Jonathan Laurence, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston College and nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. “I think they’re trying to create a situation where some provocation where they successfully provoke the Ukrainian army in doing something that would give Russia pretext to go in and ‘defend’ Russian minorities. There’s a lot of escalation there - this is their last chance in effect to become part of mother Russia and a successful presidential election with a national government to follow would put those hopes to rest.”

The election, the first national vote since an uprising toppled the elected government this year, is considered the most important since the region won independence from Moscow in 1991. It comes after Russian annexed Crimea in March, triggering sanctions from the United States and its European allies along with weeks of clashes between resistance fighters and the Ukrainian army, which has slowly regained much of the territory under insurgent control.

“The Ukrainian military has been decisive and conservative in terms of regaining control of these areas that has been embarrassing out of control at times,” says Professor Laurence, a past Berlin prize fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. “The Ukrainian military was humiliated in some instances and unprepared for a well organized resistance they faced during the occupations.”

Today Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would respect the outcome of Sunday’s vote because he wants peace and order to be restored in Ukraine. Putin’s position prompts the question: why is he backing off from his aggressive stance and previous demands on behalf of ethnic Russians? 

“Putin got back Crimea which was a very important naval port for military purposes,” says Professor Laurence, who spent last summer as a guest researcher at Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, a social science research center. “It looks like the sale of two French built warships is going through – this is going to give Russia maritime domination which is already a significant improvement to the status quo. In addition, there’s the energy potential laying under the international maritime borders of the Ukraine - there’s all this oil and gas resources to be explored there. Now it belongs to Russia by decree, by assertion. I think given the international community has been faced with this fait accompli, that Putin can call it a day and be satisfied with his result without allowing  it to escalate into something like an actual war.

“Hopefully the outcome of Sunday’s elections will have a calming effect and close this unfortunate chapter in Russia NATO relations.”


Paul Christensen

Paul Christensen
Adjunct Associate Professor of Political Science
(617) 552-4176 (office)
(617) 792-3800 (cell)

Christensen’s expertise is in Russian domestic politics, with a particular interest in social movements and civil society; the comparative study of social movements; and globalization and its implications for democracy and civil society development. He is currently working on a book project titled Semi-Peripheral Globalization, Social Movements, and the State in Post-Communist Russia. He is also the author of Russia’s Workers in Transition: Labor, Management, and the State Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin (Northern Illinois University Press).



With the Ukraine military on the move, and Russia’s prime minister warning of a civil war there, pro-Russian activists in Eastern Ukraine are making that country once again the focal point of increased tensions with their occupation of official buildings in almost a dozen cities. Whether it escalates into military conflict depends on the next moves of the Ukrainian government.

“If the Ukrainian government continues on with what they’re calling an anti – terrorist operation, then the likelihood of there being more casualties goes up,” says Boston College Adjunct Associate Professor of Political Science Paul Christensen, Ph.D.  “And the likelihood that Russia might then intervene goes up. The situation remains extremely tense and it depends on what the Ukrainian government does now and what the response of the people in the Eastern part of the country is.”

Tomorrow in Geneva, leaders from Ukraine, the United States, European Union, and Russia will meet to try to resolve the new conflict. The discussions come just days after two Russian fighter jets circled a US warship in the Black Sea.  Christiansen says the timing of it all – the flyover and the uprising in eastern Ukraine – could all be part of gamesmanship before the talks.

“Clearly this is not an attempt on the part of Russia to start something up with a US warship that could have blown it out of the sky within seconds,” says Christensen, an expert on Russian domestic politics who has worked and studied in Russia numerous times over the years. “What I think is going on is, with the unrest in the eastern part of the country getting worse, somebody in Russia told these guys to fly over the ship and that in one sense is a symbolic sign of escalating tensions. And all of this is taking place in the context of the four party talks that are supposed to be taking place in Geneva.

“In the one sense a lot of this stuff is geared toward a kind of political jockeying among the various sides in the lead up to these discussions because the Ukrainians want to talk about one set of things and the Russians want to talk about another set of things and so you could interpret the fighter jets flying over the US warship as Russia trying to get the US to be more concerned about how bad the situation is so we would put some pressure on the Ukrainians to make more concessions.”

So far, the ultimatums issued by the government to pro-Russian activists to surrender have been ignored, making tomorrow’s talks potentially pivotal.

“What Ukraine wants to talk about is getting Russia to stop meddling in the eastern part of the country and pull its troops back from the border,” says Christensen, who is working on a book titled, Semi-Peripheral Globalization, Social Movements, and the State in Post-Communist Russia. “That’s what Ukraine wants to talk about, and that’s what the EU and US want to discuss. What Russia wants to discuss are measures to federalize Ukraine, make Russia an official language and basically insure the security of the Russian speaking, ethnic Russian population in Eastern Ukraine but also put guarantees on Ukraine’s neutrality, not joining NATO, there’s a laundry list of things they want to talk about too.

“Usually in these situations, moderation is the first casualty. The small groups of radicals in the East can play an outsized role in these conflicts and bring everyone else along with them and that’s what I’m afraid is happening along with the fact that everyone now, the factions in the east, the government in Kiev, Russia, EU, and the United States, we’ve all started down a path and once these groups start going down this path, where you start to get escalation, then everybody has a stake in it and its very hard to back away. It’s extremely worrisome.” 

Media Note:

Contact information for additional Boston College faculty sources on a range of subjects is available at: /offices/pubaf/journalist/experts.html


Sean Hennessey
Associate Director
Office of News and Public Affairs
Boston College

(617) 552-3630 (office)
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