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'Frozen Conflict' In Ukraine Opens Door For Corruption


The Ukrainian city of Debaltseve is now firmly under the control of separatists and their Russian supporters. This railroad hub outside of Donetsk has been the scene of fierce fighting despite the cease-fire agreement reached last week. The continued threat of conflict in Ukraine and destabilization in other former Soviet states is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants, according to an article posted by Foreign Policy magazine. Joining me is Robert Orttung, a co-author of that article. It's called "Putin's Frozen Conflicts." Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So what do you mean by frozen conflict?

ORTTUNG: Well, a frozen conflict is a conflict where the fighting has essentially stopped, but the underlying issues remain unresolved.

CORNISH: Unresolved to the point where it feels like the fighting could start at any time, right?

ORTTUNG: Right, in most cases. Obviously, in the case of Ukraine, that conflict is ongoing as we've seen from the fighting just the last several days. But in other countries, like Georgia and Moldova, the conflict has been frozen for about 15-20 years now.

CORNISH: You point to frozen conflicts benefiting Vladimir Putin and Russia in a number of ways. First of all that it's destabilizing for these smaller governments, but that it also serves as a Trojan horse for other activities. What are those activities?

ORTTUNG: Well, the frozen conflicts help Putin because they, first of all, make it difficult for the other countries to establish democracy and set themselves up as a democratic example that could be a counter to Russia. It also makes it difficult for them to pursue economic reform. So if these countries were able to reform in a westernizing manner they might become much more effective and productive than Russia itself and the Russian citizens would want to see that. And it undermines their ability to join Western institutions and that sort of helps keeps Putin's sphere of influence intact.

CORNISH: Now, all three of these countries - you've pointed out they've obviously were pursuing a closer relationship with the EU. In what ways does this frozen conflict hurt their chances? I mean, weren't they already weak to begin with?

ORTTUNG: That's correct. The problem by having these territorial disputes is that it destabilizes the situation inside each of these three countries. It creates a lot of nationalist feelings, which brings up a lot of ugly politics in all of these places. And it makes it difficult for these countries to implement economic reform. And since their territory is in question, it makes it very difficult for them to sign an agreement with Western institutions that would prefer to be working with stable countries where it's clear what they're dealing with.

CORNISH: You also write about the role of organized crime. Tell us how that comes into play here.

ORTTUNG: Putin's regime is obviously one of the most corrupt in the world. And the parts of Eastern Ukraine where this conflict is taking place was under the control of Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, and that's where he came from. The Ukrainians, through the Maidan revolution just about a year ago, were very interested in getting rid of this system of corruption and organized crime. And so they had a revolution and basically forced Yanukovych to leave, and so that changed the situation for Putin. He became afraid that something similar might happen in Russia. So he used the existing corrupt ties and networks that he had built up inside Ukraine to set up this conflict that we see now and to destabilize the government in Ukraine. He did not want to see a democracy appear in Ukraine that would serve as a model for Russian citizens.

CORNISH: Based on what you've seen in these other countries, is there a way to mitigate Russian intervention?

ORTTUNG: Well, the problem is that Putin sees these frozen conflicts as serving his interest. So it's going to be very difficult for the Western countries to come up with any kind of solution to reduce this conflict. So therefore it's going to have to be a sort of full range of measures both military and economic.

CORNISH: Robert Orttung, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ORTTUNG: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: That's Robert Orttung. He's a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. And co-author of Foreign Policy magazine's recent article "Putin's Frozen Conflicts." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.