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Beware Ukraine 'experts'

By: Irina Shilova

  |  Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 06:00 am

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On April 8th this year, the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), whose members are instructors of east European and certain Asian languages, published on its home page a statement from Dr. Lynda Park, ASEEES president. She summarized the opinion of a diverse group of American politicians, journalists and academics who believe that there is a “decline in U.S. expertise on Russia, eastern Europe and Eurasia.” This group identifies the shortage of experts on those countries as a disturbing trend. Over the last two decades in both U.S. and Canada, Slavic departments were rapidly closed due to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the resulting end of the Cold War. Graduate programs suffered even more: in Canada, for example, only two universities offer PhD programs in these areas. Furthermore, previously available grants to study in east European countries were widely cut in the U.S. The result of all this is that current political leaders lack experts in a field which carries important implications for international policy.

After the collapse of 1991, the countries which made up the Soviet Union almost disappeared off the international arena as they moved into a transitional state. This state is characterized by political, economic and social instability. However, most of them are very large and diverse nations which continue to possess strong influence regionally, if not internationally. The U.S. and Canadian governments have ignored this fact, and have continued to cut funding, quite small to begin with, to research focused on these countries. This, in turn, led to the current dearth in scholars capable of providing sound, up-to-date analysis on east Europe.

Analyzing recent publications and interviews it can be seen that this gap is being filled with prominent scholars, but whose expertise is only superfluously linked to eastern Europe. These are primarily historians, approaching the current events from a purely historical perspective. To summarize this approach is the prevailing view of: Stalin was Russian, therefore Putin is the second coming of Stalin. The gap is also being filled with international relations specialists who, contrary to the above, work exclusively with current and up-to-date information.

International relations theories, however, remain plagued by two flaws. First, because the field is young by scholarly standards, the theories are untested. Second, because the field was born in Britain and has remained primarily rooted on the two sides of the North Atlantic, the theories are highly West-centric. As the Ukrainian crisis continues to escalate, this gap in regional specialists has begun to show. The news is filled with so-called experts brandishing such language as “I feel it in my gut,” or “Putin is so vicious,” language which is emotionally driven and empty of facts.

The phrase which is not empty of facts, and which appears often, is that Washington policy decisions are “ill advised.” This can be seen from the very beginning of Washington’s involvement in the current crisis. As the Kiev coup took place, U.S. politicians such as John McCain and Victoria Nuland publicly sided with the leaders of the right wing Ukrainian party “The Right Sector,” a party well known in East Europe as holding Neo-Nazi elements. This mistake would not have happened should they have been properly advised by experts familiar with current domestic politics in Ukraine and Russia. When Senator McCain found no better authority to turn to other than Henry Kissinger in blaming Russia for the Ukrainian crisis, he has demonstrated a trend within the U.S. government to rely upon the Cold War era policy when dealing with any crisis within Eastern Europe. Such approach does not reflect the intricacies of Ukrainian internal politics which have changed greatly since the “orange revolution” of 2004. As the November, 2013 Euromaidan, the Kiev uprising which began the current crisis, took place, Senator McCain declared that “We’re [the U.S.] trying to ... bring about a peaceful transition here [to Ukraine], that would stop the violence.” So far, it has led to an ever escalating civil war.

With few, and mostly aged, experts at their side, it seems that the U.S. and Canadian governments will continue to blunder their way through this crisis with possible disastrous results. Senator McCain already has resorted to calling for the arming of Ukrainian regular army with sophisticated military weapons so the army can use them against people in the Ukrainian Resistance. Those people are mostly civilians who disagree with the new shady “government” in Kiev. Not long ago the U.S. armed the Afghan mujahedeen during the Operation Cyclone in order to fight the Soviet forces. But ironically the same weapons then were used for years to kill American and Canadian solders.

Dr. Irina Shilova, who grew up in Ukraine, is adjunct assistant professor, Russian Studies, Department of Linguistics, Languages and Cultures, The University of Calgary. She is a resident of St. Albert.


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