Ukraine is fascinating because it is a social science laboratory, — Melinda Haring
Bohdan Nahaylo talks to Melinda Haring, editor of Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert Blog and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington DC, about how Capitol Hill views the Ukrainian presidential elections and Ukraine generally
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Alexandra Wishart for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. We’re bringing you a topical in-depth, followed by some new music.
Nahaylo: Welcome to our in-depth diThis week, our host Bohdan Nahaylo will be talking to Melinda Haring editor of Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert Blog and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington DC about how Capitol Hill views the Ukrainian presidential elections and Ukraine generally. Additionally, we will be keeping up with the latest on Ukraine’s path towards Euro-Atlantic integration the Security Forum 2019 in Kyiv this week.scussion this week. We’re talking to Melinda Haring, editor of Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert Blog. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington. Welcome Melinda!
Haring: Thank you so much Bohdan. Great to be here!
Nahaylo: The obvious question, what brings you to Ukraine this spring?
Haring: Well frankly, I don’t come here when there’s snow on the ground. After spending 18 years in Alaska I don’t particularly like the winter here. I love the spring. But seriously, I am here for the Kyiv Security Forum. The Atlantic Council is a Partner of the Kyiv Security Forum and we are doing a panel on US Foreign Policy under Donald Trump.
Nyhaylo: Tell us, or those listeners who don’t know, what the Atlantic Council is, what it represents. A think tank, I presume?
Haring: Yes, we are one of the largest think-tanks in Washington. And a think tank is basically a university without students. So we produce reports, short articles and we hold events on various foreign policy issues. And the Atlantic Council is the biggest and strongest voice on Ukraine in Washington.
Nahaylo: But it focuses not only on Ukraine?
Haring: No, it is a global think tank, so it focusses on the world. But most think-tanks in Washington are very Russia-focused and we are distinctly Ukraine focused. Our boss is the former US ambassador to Ukraine. He was here during the Orange Revolution, and that’s one of the things that makes us distinctive.
Nahaylo: I’ve noticed myself – I read your publications – that you’ve got a very impressive group of contributors. How do you keep the right balance in your coverage of Ukraine?
Haring: A combination of ways. I try to come to Ukraine four times a year and that is always helpful. I talk to everyone. I talk to other writers to get story ideas. I live in Washington so it can be challenging to stay on top of everything that is happening here and Ukraine is very dynamic. There’s been a lot of changes. It is a challenge to stay on top of the war as well I haven’t been able to go out there. We also don’t pay our contributors, so I have fabulous contributors.
Nahaylo: Let’s mention a few of them. There is Adrian Karatnytsky, Alex Motyl, Peter Dickinson based in Kyiv, and others that write on Ukraine.
Haring: John Herbs, Sandy Verschbaw, former distinguished diplomats, and as well as a lot of civil society activists here in town as well that write for us. We have politicians who write for us. We’ve had European politicians. And we have been doing this project for five years. It started right after [the Russian annexation of] Crimea (2014). There was a dearth of English language information on Ukraine, and the situation was changing so quickly. RL was doing a great work but we thought…
Nahaylo: Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Liberty.
Haring: That’s right. They’ve got a wonderful blog in English – ‘Ukraine in crisis’. Christopher Miller I think is the best English language writer here on Ukraine and always on top of things. But we needed to do something more regular. So, it started right after Crimea. I was not the editor at the time, and they were doing a lot of translations. That was the first year. And then I stepped in during the second year. I’ve been the editor for four years, and we’ve covered the reform debates in a lot of depth.
Nahaylo: What’s your own background? You have any regional specialization or?
Haring: I am a political scientist. I have a couple of degrees in Political Science. For me Ukraine is fascinating because it is a social science laboratory. Everything is changing, everything is possible: that is one of the reasons why I am really fascinated with Ukraine. I moved here 11 years ago to teach English. My boyfriend at the time was a Fullbright scholar and he was having a lot more fun than I was, and he said come to Ukraine. So, I came to Ukraine and got a job teaching English in Rusanivka at the American-English center. I was freelance writing at the time so I would take stories, I wrote for Radio Liberty, did a piece at the Kyiv Polytech on rising, not rising antisemitism… but there were some problems at the time
Nihaylo: Unpleasant features from the ultra-right, shall we say?
Haring: That’s a good way to describe it, there you go.
Nahaylo: Manifestations, being polite and tactful.
Haring: I intended to stay for six months but ended up staying for one and a half years, so you know. Everyone says you foreigners never leave, you cannot get enough of Ukraine, and that was sort of what happened to me.
Nahaylo: Okay so tell us so who are the audience? Who reads the material that you produce?
Haring: We have 4,000 subscribers, but some of our articles… one of our articles by Peter Dickinson got more than a 1 million hit last year.
Nahaylo: Wow that’s impressive!
Haring: Yes, so what do? We’ve got content-sharing agreements with just about everyone. All editors want comma perfect content; they want a content that’s beautiful, well written and well reported, and we have that and we offer it to other people for free. For a long time we were working with News Week and they gave us big hits. We also work with Novoe Vremya. We work with the Kyiv Post, and with Liga.net They are not so many journalist in Kyiv right now, so the fact that we have a broad scope of writers, people who are well-known, makes us very attractive for re-publications.
Nahaylo: That’s very important because there is still this tendency to have people in Moscow or in other centers, even in Washington or New York, reporting on Ukraine. Which, as you know, was understandable in the Soviet era, but now is hard to comprehend.
Haring: So, our main audience though, to answer your question, is the diplomatic community: policy makers in Brussels, in Washington, in Kyiv. Bankivska [the Ukrainian presidential administration’s location] reads us, the Zelensky campaign reads us. We have been doing this for so long that people take us very seriously and the fact that we have such a stable of writers and are on top of things means that people read us and treat the publication with a lot of respect.
Nahaylo: I’m speaking to Melinda Haring, editor of the Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert Blog. Now Melinda let’s broaden the subject a little bit. Let’s talk about interest, or lack of interest, or enduring interest in Ukraine, in the States, in Washington per se. Have you noticed any differences in the attention span that is given to Ukraine these days?
Haring: I wish I could say that there is a lot of enthusiasm and interest in Ukraine in Washington, but I don’t think that is the case. On Capitol Hill there is definitely strong support for Ukraine and President Petro Poroshenko has a lot of strong relationships there, and his Administration has done a good job in telling people what’s been going on here. But in general, I think there is a sense that everything is very complicated. There is a lot of disappointment that the reforms didn’t go as far and as deep as we all expected. There is a core group of people in Washington who are very interested in Ukraine. The presidential election definitely gave the interest a bit of a boost. We just had a big event at the Atlantic Council last Monday, and it was a packed house. But in general…I work with Ukrainians who come to Washington all the time and they look at me and say why is everyone obsessed with Russia, nobody knows anything about Ukraine! So, there are not very many people who work on Ukraine full-time and, frankly, it is hard to sustain interest.
Nahaylo: But I suppose there is a lot of concern that the war, Russia’s war against Ukraine, is still continuing, and Crimea continues to be occupied. Sanctions, or rather their continued application, remain a hot topic, certainly, in Europe and probably to a lesser extent in Washington. But, that on the one hand, the war, and should we say replying appropriately to Russia’s behavior, and then on the other hand, you’ve suggested that there is a certain amount of disappointment with the lack of progress, or shall we say completion, of some of the reform efforts that have been started over the last five years. How do you square these two?
Haring: In terms of interest, there are people who are definitely concerned about the war; they are watching the sanctions. But in general the war is at a stalemate; it is not changing that much. The situation in Crimea is also not changing that much. So, there’s not a whole lot to say about that. I mean you could always talk about different policy options to try and change Russia’s behavior, and I think that’s an interesting conversation. The reform picture – that’s a hot topic and that is constantly changing. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back, so we’re definitely on top of that.
Nahaylo: But is the issue of Ukraine’s closer integration into Euro-Atlantic structures – eventually, one day, maybe even NATO somewhere down the road – is that being discussed, or is that on the backburner for now?
Haring: I think it is on the backburner. It’s going to take years and years. I mean I think we need to think about the incremental steps Ukraine needs to take to get to that point.
Nahaylo: And do you see any split in the attention levels along partisan lines, between Republicans and Democrats, or is there a unified core of people, regardless of who is president, that are interested and remain concerned?
Haring: In general, on Capitol Hill there is a Ukraine caucus, and there is strong bipartisan interest in Ukraine. There’s strong bipartisan interest in the nefarious activities of Russia and I don’t expect that to change regardless of who is president.
Nahaylo: And looking forward, if there is change here, will there be panic or shall we say confusion in Washington, or are people slowly preparing for the possibility of a change?
Haring: I don’t think it’s going to be that dramatic honestly. There are a lot of questions about who Volodymyr Zelensky is. He has not come to Washington yet – he hasn’t sent any of his representatives to Washington yet. There’s a lot of questions about his background. There’s questions about how close he is to [oligarch Ihor] Kolormoisky. But in general I don’t think this is an election about foreign policy. This is an election about domestic issues. It is a question of Poroshenko’s unfulfilled promises, the poor performance of the economy, the reforms that were never carried to fulfillment. So, in general, you can debate the foreign policy differences between Poroshenko and Zelensky, and some people are trying to do it, and in my opinion trying to make those differences starker. But at the end of the day they both support membership to NATO and the EU, and they will both be tough on Russia.
Nahaylo: So really this election is not perceived in Washington as being about direction, orientation, Ukraine’s westward orientation, but about how the country’s being managed or not?
Haring: That’s right. So, the bigger, the existential question, was settled, right! Ukraine’s foreign policy is settled. You, as we followed, did it. Something very good happened this year: the constitutional amendments were passed to enshrine NATO membership and a desire for EU membership into the constitution. It’s settled. And a majority of Ukrainians favour both NATO and EU membership. So frankly I don’t see why Zelensky is talking about a referendum. Why are we even re-litigating this? Ukrainians have given far too much to re-litigate this now.
Nahaylo: Perhaps, I supect, it’s a temporary move to placate East and South Ukraine, any lingering fears that there might be about some sharp thrust westward. But who knows. I wanted to ask you about concerns about interference, not only through the internet in America’s domestic politics, the election there, but interference, continuing interference in terms of creating images of Ukraine. Do you think in the States that these pro-Russian trolls are still active in creating an image of Ukraine as a virtually a failed state, one where confusion prevails, where corruption is so rampant, that is with aim of turning people off, those who would be inclined to support Ukraine? Or has that diminished in the last year or two?
Haring: Frankly there is so little knowledge of Ukraine in Washington, in the United States, that I don’t think…but that’s probably the wrong way to look at it. Ukraine needs to do more, and more to tell America its story. Ukraine has an amazing story to tell. It has so much potential and I think there’s a lot that could be done to express what Ukraine has done, for example, in the IT sector, in fashion, in agriculture. I think that it’s the soft diplomacy that is really important. If you step outside of these elite foreign policies circles, a lot of people don’t know anything about Ukraine. They still associate it with Russia. They don’t know what happened in the last five years, and the attention span is very short. So, I would say that cultural diplomacy is the best way to tell Ukraine’s story, and it hasn’t been done effectively in the last five years.
Nahaylo: Do you sense, from your vantage point as the editor of the Atlantic Council’s chief publication on Ukraine, that there’s any interest in American political circles, foreign policy circles, to revamp, shall we say, improve, embellish, enhance, the Minsk process by including the States and perhaps Britain, moving towards what Zelensky and Tymoshenko propose – the so-called “Budapest format”. Because we’ve seen Germany replying, followed by France, in the last few days that that’s not on, that they’re not in favor of it. Do you think that there are elements within the policy-making community that would at least think about this possibility?
Haring: Not that I’ve heard of. The general line is “we need to stick with Minsk”. It’s not working that well, but we need to stick with it. I think we need to be more creative, frankly. But of course sanctions are tied to Minsk, so I think there is a reluctance to try anything new.
Nahaylo: So if you were giving advice let’s say, to a) Poroshenko b) Zelinsky, in terms of the pitch on the foreign policy scene, if they are elected, any damage that needs to be undone, any messages that have to be sent, or new signals? What would you advise both candidates if you were their advisor? Somebody looking from a Washington vantage point, knowing what is needed, and what Washington would be receptive to.
Haring: First of all, I think the new president needs to do some damage control. For the last three weeks, Ukraine has not looked good in the international press. We had the Lutsenko interview which made Ukraine look pretty poor.
Nahaylo: This is the procurator general Yuriy Lutsenko saying that the U.S ambassador in Kyiv had given him a list of “untouchables”, or people that cannot be moved against because they have U.S support.
Haring: That’s right, so you had that. Then we had this prolonged video vs video debate. The reluctance [of the two candidates] to debate, and now we’re debating. And basically, all the headlines have been in the international press: “Ukraine is about to elect a comedian. No, it’s not a joke”. I think it’s time for a more serious tone. That would be the first piece of advice I would give. But in general Ukraine has to get serious about its domestic reforms. That’s the biggest thing Ukraine has to do in the next five years.
Nahaylo: Put its house in order.
Haring: Ukraine must put its house in order. It has to get the economy going again. It’s growing at 3.25%. That’s not enough. Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe now. It’s poorer than Moldova, and it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s the worst part of this. It breaks my heart to see Ukraine not growing economically and not getting its house in order. Because it has every potential to do that.
Nahaylo: And what are we looking for from Zelensky? Reassurances that there’ll be no shift towards Russia, or that reforms will continue? What do you think his priorities should be?
Haring: In the next two weeks he needs to name a serious foreign policy advisor. He doesn’t have any foreign policy or national security advisors, and that’s one thing that a lot of us in Washington are really worried about – given what’s happening here, given how serious the threat is, given that we think that Putin will probably test him right away. He has to get a real security advisor today, or yesterday. But beyond that, I think everyone wants to know what his real plans are. He has some good advisors on anti-corruption and on judicial reform, but we don’t know if he’s going to hire them, right? That’s one of the big questions. Is he using them? Or is he sending a signal – these are the kinds of people I want around me? I hope that’s the signal that he’s sending, that these are the kinds of people that will be surrounding me. But only time will tell. We’re going to keep watching to see how close the Kolomoisky people will be to Zelensky? That’s really the big question and the big signal.
Nahaylo: Melinda, we’ve come to an end more or less. Traditionally I ask my guests to share their final thoughts – it can be a message, it can be words of advice. What would you like to say to our audience out there in cyberspace?
Haring: I hope you read Ukraine Alert, and we’ll be watching and following. So thanks for having me.
Nahaylo: Thanks very much. I’ve been talking to Melinda Haring, Editor of Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert blog, and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington. Thanks very much Melinda.
Haring: Thank you.
With all the tensions in Ukraine surrounding the presidential election campaign, it’s a good idea to take a break. Here’s some upbeat music by the ethno-rock band Vasia Club. It’s one of their classic pieces called Чорна Гора, a mountain in the Carpathian mountains, but it’s also about the Black Sea. Enjoy!
Next week we will be bringing you another topical interview with our host Bohdan Nahaylo. So be sure to tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at: [email protected] I’m Alexandra Wishart for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.