Europe
11:05 am
Tue March 25, 2014

How Crimea's Annexation Plays To Russians' Soviet Nostalgia

Originally published on Tue March 25, 2014 6:13 pm

According to political scientist Kimberly Marten, Russia's decision to annex Crimea from Ukraine may have changed its relationship with the outside world for many years to come.

Marten writes, "The leader of a state that wields a massive strategic nuclear arsenal, controls a significant portion of the world's petroleum and other raw materials, and holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council, has just revealed his willingness to use force on behalf of ethnic nationalism. This was the nightmare that Western policymakers hoped to avoid when the Soviet Union collapsed."

Marten is a professor of political science at Barnard College, the deputy director for development at Columbia University's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, and a faculty member at Columbia's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. She joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin's long-term goals and the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations.


Interview Highlights

On who Putin sees as his constituency

Putin is primarily focused on his domestic audience, not the international audience. He's made it very clear that he doesn't care what the world thinks of him, and he actually takes it as a badge of honor if people think that he's not a nice man.

But, domestically, he is very concerned about keeping power, not even so much for the vast majority of the Russian population, because that's not who he cares about the most. He cares about the small group of elites that are in various circles of power in the Kremlin and immediately surrounding the Kremlin. And by his recent actions, he has shown that he no longer cares about the economic internationalists among the elites — the people who were pushing for Russia to join the World Trade Organization, the people who recognize that Russia's economy is in stagnation and that the only way to get it out of stagnation is to diversify beyond its petroleum dependence and to really become a player in the international economy.

Putin has chosen, instead, to throw in his lot with ethnic nationalists, who are associated both with conservative elements in the Russian Orthodox Church and with the former KGB.

On why Putin wanted Crimea to be a part of Russia

Putin didn't get anything economically by taking over Crimea. Crimea has been very heavily subsidized by the Ukrainian government and is very dependent on the rest of Ukraine for its electricity supplies, for various other things that it requires, like water, to run its agricultural complex and its industries. It's not a wealthy country ... so he didn't actually get anything material by deciding to take over Crimea.

What he got was the ability to come home to his home population and say, "Look how strong I am. They're not going to be able to insult us any more like they have been doing since the end of the Cold War. Russia's military might is back. ... I have now brought back Russia into the limelight, and I'm protecting the Russian population."

On how Russians and Ukrainians got along during the Soviet era

There certainly were Russians who were in the Russian parts of Ukraine during the Russian empire who got along very well with the Ukrainians. Russians and Ukrainians, especially in the east part of Ukraine and the central part of Ukraine, had considered themselves brothers. There wasn't this ethnic hostility that we've been seeing more recently. That is a more a function of the more recent history.

On how Putin is stirring up ethnic hostility

There's no question [Putin] is stirring it up, and the thing that I found very striking in his major address to both houses of the Russian parliament a few days ago — for the first time, he switched from talking about Rossisskii, the interests of the Russian state, to talking about Russkii, the interests of the Russian people. There are two ways that you can talk about being Russian in the Russian language: Rossisskii means Russian citizens and Russian statehood; Russkii means the Russian ethnic group. And Putin's language in the speech a few days ago really started emphasizing Russia as an ethnic concept rather than Russia as a state concept, and I found that very disturbing because it's an indication that Putin is really throwing in his lot with the members of the elite who consider themselves ethnic nationalists.

On why many Russians want to restore the Soviet Union

People remember with nostalgia how easy life was, and they also remember how great the Soviet Union was; how it inspired respect and fear in the rest of the world, and they were a superpower. The end of the Soviet Union is really seen by many Russians today as a tragedy.

It was something where the U.S. had promised great things if Russia were to cooperate and, in fact, everything that Russia did it did on its own. Russia gave up its military presence throughout Eastern Europe, and what did NATO do? NATO expanded into that territory. ... Russia invited the U.N. into Afghanistan to oversee the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. And what did the U.S. do? The U.S., in the Russian view, flagrantly didn't pay any attention to the U.N. Security Council when it chose to make its incursions into Iraq, and earlier when it made its incursions into Kosovo with airstrikes.

So for all of these reasons, a very large fraction of the Russian population, maybe a majority of Russians, feel humiliated by what has happened. They feel betrayed by what the U.S. and the West has given to them, they feel excluded from the economic opportunities that the European Union might provide, and thinking that now's their chance to get something back and to show the world that really you can't do that to Russia.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Russia and its relationship with the outside world may have permanently changed, writes my guest, Kimberly Marten. She says the leader of a state that wields a massive strategic nuclear arsenal, controls a significant portion of the world petroleum and other raw materials, and holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council, has just revealed his willingness to use force on behalf ethnic nationalism. This was the nightmare that Western policymakers hoped to avoid when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Marten is a professor of political science at Barnard College, the deputy director for development at Columbia's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, and a faculty member of Columbia's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. She's going to talk about some of the Russian, Crimean and Ukrainian history and current politics that help explain what's happening in the region today.

Kimberly Marten, welcome to FRESH AIR. What do you think Putin's goals are?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Putin is primarily focused on his domestic audience, not the international audience. He's made it very clear that he doesn't care what the world thinks of him, and he actually takes it as a badge of honor if people think that he's not a nice man. But domestically he is very concerned about keeping power, not even so much for the vast majority of the Russian population because that's not who he cares about the most.

He cares about the small group of elites that are in various circles of power in the Kremlin and immediately surrounding the Kremlin. And by his recent actions he has shown that he no longer cares about the economic internationalists among the elites, the people who were pushing for Russia to join the World Trade Organization, the people who recognize that Russia's economy is in stagnation and that the only way to get it out of stagnation is to diversify beyond its petroleum dependence and truly become a player in the international economy.

And Putin has chosen instead to throw in his lot with ethnic nationalists who are associated both with conservative elements in the Russian Orthodox Church and with the former KGB.

GROSS: So you said that the direction Putin is heading in is more of like Russian nationalism than bolstering the economy.

MARTEN: Right, that's true.

GROSS: But the oligarchs are kind of powerful in Russia. Do you think Putin is putting his own power at stake by doing things that might tank the economy? Like with Russia's credit getting lowered, that's not going to be good for the economy. Sanctions, not good for the economy.

MARTEN: Well, you know, the oligarchs don't have independent power in Russia, and Putin made that very clear in a conversation he had with them many years ago that has been widely reported, where he drew them into a Kremlin office and essentially said you are free to go make money and we will not prosecute you for all of the laws that you broke during the time that you were acquiring your money, because the truth is nobody in the early 1990s in Russia could get money without breaking laws. The laws were so onerous that they would have prevented anybody from getting rich.

At one point the tax rate was over 100 percent, and so there was no way anybody could make profits without violating the laws. But Putin went on to say we'll let you go ahead and make money, and we won't prosecute you as long as what you choose to do is to stay out of politics and let me do my thing. And so if you follow along behind me, if you are loyal to me, go be wealthy. And that was an indication that he had some power over them, and he had demonstrated that power when he threw one of them, Khodorkovsky, in jail for violation of laws that Putin said that Khodorkovsky had done during the time that he was amassing an oil empire.

And so there's always that threat of what's called compremat(ph) in Russian, compromising material, to either imprison people or to make life very uncomfortable for them.

GROSS: Let's talk history. Let's start with Crimea. Why did Putin want Crimea to be part of Russia? What does Crimea have to offer Russia?

MARTEN: Well, it's interesting as a question because Putin didn't get anything economically by taking over Crimea. Crimea has been very heavily subsidized by the Ukrainian government and is very dependent on the rest of Ukraine for its electricity supplies, for various other things that it requires like water to run its agricultural complex and its industries. It's not a wealthy country.

And it's also an interesting question because already Putin had a great deal of influence in Crimea. He had signed an agreement with the Ukrainian government back in 2010 that gave him a lease on the base at Sevastopol that - the naval base on the Black Sea - until 2042 in return for Ukraine getting a reduced rate on the natural gas imports that it got from Russia.

And so the relationship between Gazprom and the gas imports and Ukrainian security interests was very much furthered in Russia's favor by that arrangement. Furthermore, you know, throughout Ukraine there is a significant Russian minority population, and that always had a big role in the elections that took place in Ukraine. It meant that parties who represented Russian interests could make headway.

And so he didn't actually get anything material by deciding to take over Crimea. What he got was the ability to come home to his home population and say look how strong I am, they're not going to be able to insult us anymore like they have been doing since the end of the Cold War. Russia's military might is back. We are cleverer than they are. They can't understand what we're doing. We can sneak up on them and do things, and they can't stop us. And so we should all be very happy for the sake that I have now brought back Russia into the limelight, and I'm protecting the Russian population.

GROSS: So Crimea didn't become part of the Ukraine until 1954, when Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukraine.

MARTEN: Yes.

GROSS: And what - why did Khrushchev do that?

MARTEN: Well, it's important to understand that at that time it was sort of a meaningless kind of gesture because at that time the Soviet Union existed. There was no separate Russia and Ukraine. They were just the names of republics that were in the Soviet space.

GROSS: So Crimea and Ukraine were republics in the Soviet Union, and then Khrushchev made Crimea part of the Ukrainian republic?

MARTEN: Crimea was an - had an autonomous status, but Khrushchev moved it from the Russian republic to the Ukrainian republic inside the Soviet Union. And it wasn't really clear at the time why he did it. It was probably part of his de-Stalinization campaign. The previous leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, had been just a really horrible person who engaged in terrible, bloody purges. He caused a mass starvation in Ukraine because of his industrial and agricultural policies.

And during the time that Khrushchev was in office, he made a special effort to distinguish himself from Stalin and to say that Stalin was sort of a blight on the Soviet past. He didn't go into great detail about what Stalin did, he certainly didn't reveal the extent of what Stalin did, but he gained power in the Soviet Union by distinguishing himself from Stalin and saying it was a time for a thaw, for a new way of looking at things.

And so the guess is that this was part of saying to Ukraine we realize that Stalin treated you badly, and we want to throw you this little bone to make you understand that the Soviet leadership doesn't hate you.

GROSS: So when Putin says that Crimea is historically Russian, and he is just kind of restoring it back to Russia, does he have a point?

MARTEN: He does have a point, although it's interesting that the status of Crimea within Russia, within the Russian empire, was very contested over the centuries. The first person who tried to take the port at Sevastopol away from the Turkish empire, the Ottoman empire, was Peter the Great, and he didn't manage to hold Sevastopol. He lost that territory, and then it was finally taken over permanently for the Russian empire by Catherine the Great.

And so we have yet to see whether Putin is able to hold Sevastopol in a way that Peter the Great was not able to do. So yes, for those centuries it was indeed part of the Russian empire, but there were changes in territory made throughout what had been imperial space following World War I and following World War II.

And so the idea that the imperial borders should be permanent borders is not something that has a lot of weight in international law.

GROSS: President Yeltsin wanted to return Crimea to Russia. Was there a movement to do that in the Yeltsin era?

MARTEN: In the 1990s there was a lot of legal debate that was happening in Ukraine and in Russia and in negotiations back and forth about what the status of various territories were going to be, including Crimea. And Crimea did have special resonance for Russia. It was always considered, more than anything else, the prime vacation spot for Russians on the Black Sea.

There was the port at Sevastopol that is Russia's only entrance into the Black Sea and then beyond that into the Mediterranean. So if Russia were ever to establish itself again, at some point in the future, as being a major sea-going power, which it is not at the moment, it would need that base at Sevastopol to be able to do that.

And so, yes, there was a legal debate. But what's really interesting is that in the 1990s it was resolved without there being violence, without there being bloodshed, and at that time Crimea was given a special autonomous status within Ukraine. The complaints ever since have been that it was not given sufficient autonomous status and that in particular there was not sufficient attention paid to Russian language needs of the population in Crimea.

GROSS: So Putin says one of the reasons why he took over Crimea was because there's such a large ethnic, you know, Russian ethnic population, and he wants to protect them. The population indigenous to Crimea are the Tatars who...

MARTEN: Yes, and again it's a complicated history. The Tatars were very much the dominant population in Crimea because remember Crimea had originally been part of the Ottoman Empire. And so the Tatars were the dominant population there until 1944, and at that point Stalin had that entire population deported en mass to elsewhere in the Soviet space. A lot of them ended up in Kazakhstan and elsewhere.

And it was just an incredibly bloody time. Many of those people were killed during the deportation process. And slowly they have started straggling back home since the end of the Soviet period, when they first felt like maybe they would be welcomed back there again. And they came home to find that their homes had been taken over by the Russians, who had moved into the space after that deportation occurred.

But you know, there have been a majority Russian population living in Crimea after World War II, and so that there are people who have established homes and established businesses and who really feel that they belong there. And so as is always the case whenever you have any kind of an ethnic cleansing campaign anywhere in the world, there are interests that are in opposition to each other, and it's very difficult to work out exactly what is the ethical thing or the moral thing that should be done.

GROSS: So this explains why Tatars fear Russian control of Crimea. They've had bad experiences.

MARTEN: They have. Now, their experiences under Ukraine over the last 20 years have not been outstanding. There has not really been all that much effort on the part of the Ukrainian government to recognize their plight. A lot of the Tatars have been living in what is called sort of unofficial housing. They've built sort of little houses, little shacks for themselves in the middle of property that they didn't actually own in order to have a place to live, and they've been allowed to live there, but they certainly have not prospered in Ukraine.

And just in the past few days, we've seen the new government in Ukraine try to reach out to the Tatars. Now the Russians have promised the Tatars that they will have language rights, that they will have cultural rights and so forth, but at the same time the new government of Crimea has also said that the Tatars will be asked to move off the areas that they're currently entrenched and move elsewhere in Crimea, since they're on property that doesn't belong to them.

And so, you know, for many reasons the Crimeans are very concerned about what this means for their fate in the long term.

GROSS: So what is - what is Ukraine losing now that Crimea is no longer a part of Ukraine?

MARTEN: Primarily it's a sense of pride. I mean they're losing a vacation spot, but the truth is they're not losing that much economically because Crimea really depended on Ukraine rather than Ukraine depending on Crimea. The one thing that they've lost so far is the Ukrainian state property that was located in Crimea.

That included some battleships that were part of the Ukrainian fleet that was housed at Sevastopol and in the Black Sea, and it also includes, you know, infrastructure pieces and some enterprises that were state-owned enterprises in Crimea. So there is that immediate monetary loss, and my understanding is that the Ukrainian government plans to sue Russia, and they already have launched the lawsuit to sue Russia over restitution for the lost state property.

But in many ways Ukraine has lost a headache by getting rid of Crimea because that was where the Russian ethnic population in the country was concentrated, and that means that in politics going forward, they don't have to worry so much about that ethnic Russian vote.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kimberly Marten. She's a professor of political science at Barnard. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Kimberly Marten. She's a professor of political science at Barnard and deputy director for development at Columbia's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

Let's talk about Ukraine. Why is Ukraine important to Russia?

MARTEN: Well, going back into early medieval history, the original Kievan city, the city in Kiev was the seat of the civilization known as the Rus. And the Rus, R-U-S, is seen as the source for both the Russian and the Ukrainian civilization, and there have been historical debates over time about whether Rus was actually Russian or actually Ukrainian or a combination of both. Most historians think it probably was really the source of both the Russian and Ukrainian civilizations.

And so you could go back in time and say that therefore there is that nationalist urge to recover the very ancient history in the city of Kiev. It would be part of the Russian national myth that it has about itself that Ukraine was part of Russia.

And then in Soviet times, some of the beaches in Ukraine were really the top vacation spots. And so people who remember those Soviet times with fondness and maybe with now some nostalgia for what was lost when the Soviet Union ended, have memories of spending their childhood summers on the beaches in Ukraine, and it's understandable why that would have emotional value, too.

GROSS: Where does oil figure into the equation?

MARTEN: Oil figures into the equation, or petroleum, at least, figures into the equation, because there are deposits of natural gas off the coast of Crimea. There is also shale gas that could be developed in Ukraine, but those are not in areas that Russia has currently seemed to be immediately interested in. Certainly there is petroleum in Ukraine that could be of interest to Russia going forward, but the big story about petroleum is the fact that Ukraine has been dependent on Russian imports for something like 75 percent of its natural gas, which is used primarily for heating in the wintertime.

GROSS: And is there a Russian pipeline that passes through Ukraine?

MARTEN: Yes, and the natural gas that goes into Crimea, actually - Crimea produces some of its own natural gas because of the deposits that are located offshore in the Black Sea and so forth - but a significant portion of the gas that goes into Crimea, I think it's something like 25 percent, also passes through Ukraine, and it originates with the Gazprom pipeline coming from Russia.

GROSS: So if Ukraine is dependent on Russia for a lot of its gas, is Russia going to be punishing Ukrainians using gas?

MARTEN: It already has. The latest information that we have is that Gazprom has chosen to increase the price that Ukraine has to pay for natural gas imports. There had been a treaty that said that in return for having rights over the base at Sevastopol until 2042, Russia would give Ukraine a below-market price on its natural gas. And the latest evidence is that Gazprom is now charging Ukraine an above-market price on its natural gas, which again may be something that plays well in the immediate circumstances, but it just makes Ukraine put all of its effort into finding alternative sources of supply, including reversing the pipelines that go now into Europe so that it can take gas that comes into ports, liquid natural gas that comes into seaports in Europe, and important that, and also developing its own shale gas deposits.

And those are long-term things, but with the new Gazprom decisions, it's making them more and more cost-effective. And so Gazprom might be getting very short-term interests out of this, but it's essentially biting off its nose to spite its face in the long term.

GROSS: So Ukraine has a very complicated and a pretty bloody history. It's been part of different countries and empires. It became part of czarist Russia at the end of the 18th century.

MARTEN: Yes.

GROSS: And then Ukrainians tried to break away from Russia.

MARTEN: Well, you know, it's a very difficult history, and Ukraine really never had a national identity as a separate state until the early 1990s. You know, parts of Ukraine were part of the Russian empire. Parts were part of the Polish, Lithuanian, Austro-Hungarian empire. And those two different sections of Ukraine really had different ways of looking at their own roles in the world.

Certainly in the time that the Bolshevik revolution was happening, there was an effort by some Ukrainian Bolsheviks themselves, Ukrainian communists, to form a separate communist Republic of Ukraine. That didn't last very long. There was a major war between Russia and Poland immediately in the early 1920s that the Ukrainian territory was a part of.

And then the Soviets did eventually manage to get control over most of what is currently Ukraine, although part of it was still left in Poland at that time. And then things got more complicated when we turned to what happened in World War II.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about what happened under Stalin. Stalin wanted to create collective farms. How did the Ukraine figure into that?

MARTEN: Well, especially in the early 1930s, Stalin's economic vision was that all of the agricultural produce in the Soviet Union should go to feed the key workers for Soviet industry because communism was based on labor, labor and industry. One of the things that happened in the very early 1930s was that he requisitioned grain from all of the agricultural producing areas in the Soviet Union, but Ukraine was a particular victim of it.

As a result, people who produced grain and other products for the Soviets were not even able to keep their own produce. They were forced to turn over everything that they produced on the land to the Soviets, and farms were collectivized. They were turned into Soviet Communist Party group farms that had to produce for the Soviet state with all of the things taken away from those farms to feed the workers.

And the policies that were put into place in Ukraine in particular seemed to be much harsher than those that went into place in the rest of the Soviet space. And so even in the Ukrainian big cities, people were suffering from starvation, more so than was true in other areas in the Soviet Union, certainly more so than was true in much of Russia.

And there's some disagreement among historians about exactly what the effect was of those Stalinist policies, but there is consensus that it was at least three million people who died because of manmade starvation at that time, from about 1931 to 1932 in Soviet Ukraine.

GROSS: Kimberly Marten will be back in the second half of the show. She's a professor of political science at Barnard. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about some of the history and current politics in Russia, Crimea and Ukraine that help explain what's happening in the region today. Our guest, Kimberly Marten, is a professor of political science at Barnard College and the deputy director for development at Columbia's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies

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GROSS: Our guest Kimberly Marten is a professor of political science at Barnard College and the deputy director at Columbia's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and European Studies. When we left off, we're talking about Stalin's policies in the 1930s that led to mass starvation in Ukraine. It was also a period of Russification in Ukraine.

There were Russians who were sent into the eastern part of Ukraine, the part of Ukraine where Russian troops are now massed on the border. Why were Russians sent in?

MARTEN: Well, you know, throughout the Soviet time, there was an effort to develop new industrial bases in areas that had not been industrialized before. And the thought was, at least in part, that if you establish these major industrial enterprises and had them tied through various forms of infrastructure to each other it was a way of maintaining control from the center in this very far-flung, very geographically spread out empire. And so Russification had been practiced in Russian Imperial times as well, but it made sense for the Soviets to try to send out people from the center to populate the entire far-flung empire of the Soviet times just to make sure that the Soviets could keep control over this vast geographical space.

GROSS: So the Russians in Ukraine historically are there as part of a Russification policy during the Soviet era.

MARTEN: Well, but again, it's more complicated than that because there certainly were Russians who were in the Russian parts of Ukraine during the Russian Empire who got along very well with the Ukrainians. I mean Russians and Ukrainians, especially in the east part of Ukraine and the central part of Ukraine, had considered themselves brothers. There wasn't this ethnic hostility that we've been seeing more recently. That's more a function of the more recent history.

GROSS: And do you think Putin is stirring up that hostility?

MARTEN: There's no question he's stirring it up. And the thing that I found very striking was that in his major address to both houses of the Russian parliament a few days ago, for the first time, he switched from talking about Rossiiskii, from talking about the interests of the Russian state, to talking about Russkii, the interests of the Russian people. There are two ways that you can talk about being Russian in the Russian language: Rossiiskii means Russian citizens, Russian statehood and so forth; Russkii means the Russian ethnic group. And Putin's language in the speech a few days ago really started emphasizing Russia as an ethnic concept rather than Russia as a state concept, and I found that very disturbing.

GROSS: Why do you find that disturbing?

MARTEN: Because it's an indication that Putin is really throwing in his lot with the members of the elite who consider themselves ethnic nationalists. We have to remember that everything that Putin is doing he's doing for domestic reasons. His goal is to consolidate and maintain his own level of power. And I think what in part explains the timing of this is the Sochi Olympics. And in a way it doesn't make sense that he'd be taking these actions right now when he was on a high coming out of the Sochi Olympics and when the Russian people were so proud of what had been accomplished in Sochi, with the building of all the new infrastructure and construction and the Russian wins. They got most of the medals, they got most of the gold medals, it was a time of celebration. So why now? Well, it's because I think there was about to be just a really major scandal over the incredible level of corruption that went into state building and state construction and state infrastructure in Sochi.

They essentially took this backwater area that was a resort but not a very well developed resort that had been started as a resort in Stalin's time and within a few years turned it into this beautiful Olympic area, but that now has no particular use because it's just going back to being a regular resort again and it's located right on the edge of the area where all of the incredible ethnic conflict is happening with Islamists in Russia. And so it's a kind of a dangerous place to go on vacation. So they poured all of this money - the estimates were somewhere around $50 billion - into making this resort look good for this very short time period. And everybody believes that the state loans that went into constructing that resort cannot be repaid and that they were given to Putin's friends - including some of the friends who are now being sanctioned by the United States - and so these things are probably all connected to each other.

GROSS: So you think in part that Putin's actions in Crimea are a diversion?

MARTEN: Yes. Political scientists have a term for this. It's called diversionary war. And as of today, it might not be a war yet; it looks like one might be on the horizon. But the argument is that a politician, a state leader who is facing a difficult time at home might be tempted to launch an international conflict to get people at home to rally around the flag and stop paying attention to something that is embarrassing or that might bring the regime down at home.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about Ukraine during World War II.

MARTEN: OK.

GROSS: At first when the Nazis invade Ukraine, the Ukrainians - some Ukrainians anyways - thought that this would be preferable to Soviet control.

MARTEN: Yes, that's true. There were some Ukrainians who did end up taking partisan sides with the Nazis in the Nazi-Soviet confrontation because they had been so badly treated by the Soviets and because - especially in the Western part of the country they had had never seen themselves as being part of the Soviet space or even the Russian Empire going back in history. They had seen themselves as part of the West. But, you know, what Stalin did was to take the actions of some people, some partisans, and have collective punishment that was carried out on whole villages for the actions of those partisans. He did not do a very careful job of distinguishing who is actually responsible for fighting against him. And in the very sad and tragic thing, the Nazis did the same thing and so the Ukrainian populace really suffered from both the Soviets and the Nazis during World War II.

GROSS: It's such a complicated history with Ukraine and Crimea...

MARTEN: It really is.

GROSS: ...just even figuring out who controls the territory during different centuries is...

MARTEN: Yes. The borders change constantly.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And so do you think that has strengthened or weakened a sense of ethnic identification in Crimea and Ukraine?

MARTEN: There has not really been a very strong and unified sense of what it means to be Ukrainian. What we're seeing now is that the younger population in Ukraine - the people who became of age - who even came up childhood after the Soviet Union have tended to think of themselves more as Ukrainian than their parents did. It's really the generation that is the older generation that lived through Soviet times that doesn't really have a sense of what it means to be Ukrainian or Russian because there really wasn't a distinction between the two so much in Soviet times.

GROSS: Do you think Putin might see himself as the man who's going to kind of restore the Soviet Union?

MARTEN: Well, he wouldn't probably be capable of doing that. That would take a level of military strength and a level of political strength that he doesn't have. But I think that that - moving in that general direction and making people think that that is going to be part of his legacy might indeed be part of the direction that he's going; at least restoring greater Russia, if not restoring the entire Soviet Union.

GROSS: But why would Russians want, you know, some of that restored? Russia suffered so much in the era of the Soviet Union.

MARTEN: People have tended to forget that and there is now a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time before people had to work so hard. Back when the state took care of you, back when friendships were stronger, you know, the old joke was we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us. But everybody had housing. Everybody had food. Everybody had vacations, including vacations in the Crimea. Everybody had preschool and everybody was literate. The education system in the Soviet Union was pretty good at a basic level. So people remember all of these things and they remember with nostalgia how easy life was, and they also remember how great the Soviet Union was, how it inspired respect and fear in the rest of the world, and they were a super power. And the end of the Soviet Union is really seen by many Russians today as a tragedy. It was something where the United States had promised great things if Russia were to cooperate and, in fact, everything that Russia did it did on its own.

You know, Russia gave up its military presence throughout Eastern Europe. And what did NATO do? NATO expanded into that territory. What did Russia do? Russia invited United Nations into Afghanistan to oversee the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. And what did the United States do? The United States, in the Russian view, flagrantly didn't pay any attention to the U.N. Security Council when it chose to make its incursions into Iraq and earlier when it made its incursions into Kosovo with airstrikes.

And so for all these reasons, a very large fraction of the Russian population - maybe a majority of Russians - feel humiliated by what has happened. They feel betrayed by what the United States and the West has given, feeling excluded from the economic opportunities that the European Union might provide and thinking that now is their chance to get something back in to show the world that really, you can't do that to Russia; that Russia may have been resting for a little while but now its back on its feet and it's going to take what belongs to it.

GROSS: My guest is Kimberly Marten. She's a professor of political science at Barnard. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is Kimberly Marten. And she's a professor of political science at Barnard and deputy director for development at Columbia's Harriman Institute or Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

Just before Russian troops entered Crimea, the Ukrainian president Yanukovych, fled the country. And one of the reasons why is that he refused to sign an agreement with the European Union and popular opinion was that agreement should be signed. And popular opinion was that Ukraine should strengthen its ties with the West and with NATO countries. But Putin wanted the opposite. Putin wanted Ukraine to be siding with Russia, not to be strengthening its ties with Europe. So what's at stake for the European Union and for NATO now?

MARTEN: Well, I think it's important we think about the events that happened in December and January and February with the protests that were happening in Ukraine, that yes, the question of an agreement with the European Union was part of what was happening. That was the initial spark for the protests, the Euro-Maidan protests. But what really got people angry, what swelled the number of people who were participating in the protests, was the fact that the Yanukovych regime in November started using violence against peaceful protesters who were out for the European Union agreement reason. And at that point, the tenor of the protest really changed. It was no longer about joining Europe. It was about ousting a regime that was considered corrupt and violent and that violated people's human rights. And so when we're thinking about what happened in the January and February parts of the protests, that really wasn't any longer about Europe, that was about wanting to get rid of a regime that people in Ukraine - a very wide group of people in Ukraine - no longer accepted as being legitimate. So in terms of the stakes for Europe, I mean it's interesting that just recently just at the end of this weekend, Ukraine did sign the agreement with the European Union that had been the original spark for those Euro-Maidan protests. And so Putin lost what he had been hoping to potentially gain by threatening Ukraine. He got the Ukrainians to actually throw in their lot with the European Union.

It's very unlikely that Ukraine will be asked t to join NATO anytime soon. And that's because NATO has a very strict set of standards for accepting new members. NATO has a clause in its charter, Article V, that says that every member of NATO must be willing and able to come to the defense of any member of NATO who is threatened. And that means that NATO doesn't want to take on any new members who themselves are facing violent conflicts or potential violent conflicts. And NATO only wants to take on new members that have really stable governments, which Ukraine doesn't have. We know that they have new elections coming up in May, but up until this point Ukraine really has not had a stable democratic government. It has had a variety of corrupt governments that have been connected in various ways to various oligarchs who themselves are rumored to be connected to organized crime. I mean it's been a very unstable set of governments that has really not been a stable liberal democracy. And in addition to that, NATO wants to make sure it only takes on new members that can make economic contributions and military contributions to the common defense. And Ukraine's economy right now is in a shambles and its military needs all kinds of reforms to become at all a capable military. And so for all those reasons, for NATO what is primarily at issue right now is trying to make sure that instability in Ukraine doesn't bleed over the border into NATO member states and that to really emphasize that NATO will do everything to defend the NATO member states in the Baltics, in Poland, in Romania, in particular.

GROSS: I know no one can predict what's going to happen. But when you look into the near future, what are you most worried about?

MARTEN: What I am most worried about is the possibility that Russian forces could go over the border from mainland Ukraine, march through the eastern part of Ukraine, perhaps try to say that they were protecting Russian ethnic populations in some of the big industrial cities in eastern Ukraine, but then potentially go through Ukraine into Moldova with the argument that they were protecting Russian populations in Moldova and with the ultimate purpose of trying to establish a place for those Moldovan populations to have access to the Black Sea through what is now Ukrainian territory, including the area of Odessa, which has a very mixed population. Odessa always has had meaning for Russians as a vacation spot. It does have a significant Russian minority population, but Odessa is not like Crimea. And my worry is not that the Ukrainian military would be able to take on the Russian military full force on this in a normal conventional war. I don't think they would be willing to, they might give token resistance but I can't imagine that Ukraine would take that on knowing that NATO would not have the obligation to come and support them and knowing that NATO has no desire to have a war with Russia.

But my fear is that there could be a Ukrainian insurgency campaign, a Ukrainian guerilla campaign, against those Russian forces if they were to go into mainland Ukraine. And then at that point people in Poland who had sympathy for Ukraine, again, because of that long history of western Ukraine, of being part of the Polish Lithuanian Empire, and of that piece of territory being taken away from Poland as a result of the Yalta Agreements that closed War World II, that Poland might feel obligated to give some form of support to the Ukrainian guerilla movement against the Russians.

And at that point, you have a NATO member state that is taking sides in a civil war in Ukraine that involves Russian forces. And that would be, I think, the biggest danger that could result.

GROSS: Has Putin's recent actions caused you to reevaluate your opinion of him?

MARTEN: Yes. I always thought up until this point that he was somebody who weighed costs and benefits very carefully. There was no excuse for what Putin did. There was no hostility against the Russian ethnic population. So he made an incredibly risky set of maneuvers for no apparent economic benefit. Putin has lost economically by what he has done, whether or not the sanctions work.

He's taken on a burden by now having to provide for Crimea and by threatening the economic relationships that he had secured with Ukraine in the post-Soviet space. He did all of these things for no apparent reason except trying to gain something in terms of domestic support. And that really, really worries me because if all he cares about at this point is domestic support and if he's thrown in his lot with the nationalists, it could go in a very extreme direction in ways that we are not predicting what could happen next.

Because it could indicate that Putin has changed his calculus in a way that what the rest of the world does in reaction to his moves no longer matters to him in the least.

GROSS: Well, you use the word extremist. How extremist are the extremists that he's thrown his lot in with?

MARTEN: Well, it's difficult to know yet but we do know that there has been increasing instances of ethnic conflict throughout Russia over the past decade. There was a really, really bad instance this past October when there was a major riot in one of the suburbs of Moscow that was between ethnic Central Asians and ethnic Russians, and the Russian police seemed to come in on the side of the ethnic Russians.

The people who were punished for the riots were the Central Asians, even though there is some evidence that it was Russians who provoked it. We know that there have been repeated instances of Russian skinhead groups going into markets in Moscow and elsewhere in the major Russian regions where people from the North Caucuses, from Chechnya and elsewhere in that region, had violence committed against them, have had their market stalls overturned, have been beaten up, in some cases even murdered.

In some cases people, just for having dark skin, have been pulled off subway trains or commuter trains in Russia and just been beaten up by skinhead groups. And so we don't know for sure that that's the direction that Putin is heading but he took the first step in that direction by what he said in that speech to the Russian parliament a few days ago.

And if he no longer cares what the rest of the world thinks and if he believes that that's the direction that he has to go to maintain control over Russia, that could be very disturbing for what happens down the line.

GROSS: What quote are you referring to?

MARTEN: Oh. Just talking so much about the Russian ethnic population rather than talking about the Russian state interest, using Russkii rather than Rossiiskii. The whole tone of his speech before the Parliament was very ethnically nationalist in a way that is unusual for Putin. And so by making that switchover, going into ethnic terminology rather than Russian state interest terminology, Putin has really indicated that he's making the first step towards extreme nationalism.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

MARTEN: Thank you, Terry. My pleasure.

GROSS: Kimberly Marten is a professor of political science at Barnard and deputy director for development at Columbia's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a novella by Teju Cole. It's set in Nigeria where he grew up. This is FRESH AIR.

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