Even though the battles over the future of Ukraine have shifted to the country's southeast, there are still tents on Kiev's Maidan Square. Smoke rises from the protesters' makeshift stoves, between the neon signs of Western corporations and the burned-out ruin of the trade union building. There are photos everywhere of those who died here, an action film is being shown on a large screen and a man is playing the guitar and belting out revolutionary songs. There are donation cans and flags fluttering here and there, in this odd mixture of tent city, Occupy protest camp and youth hostel.
Earlier this month, at the nearby National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, American historian Timothy Snyder hosted an international conference called "Thinking Together." Intellectuals from the United States, Western Europe and Eastern Europe gave lectures and participated in small group discussions over what the events in Ukraine mean for European and the rest of the world. Their aim was to demonstrate solidarity.
The atmosphere at the conference resembled the emotionally charged Cold War-era writer meetings, where intellectuals discussed ways to escape oppression and oppose aggressors. But instead of issuing manifestos against Russian President Vladimir Putin, attendees of the Kiev conference mostly just listened.
Snyder, who switched back and forth between Ukrainian and English, was the soul of the conference, and his presence could be felt everywhere. During his opening lecture in the university's large lecture hall last Thursday, even the aisles were filled with people. Most of the attendees were young, a microcosm of the country's future.
After his lecture, the 44-year-old Yale professor signed autographs, looking clearly uncomfortable while doing so, and then joined 61-year-old Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert and 36-year-old Ukrainian political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov for a conversation with SPIEGEL at a Kiev hotel.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Snyder, two elections will take place on May 25, one in Europe and one in Ukraine. How are the two votes related?
Snyder: The Ukrainians chose the date for symbolic reasons, to show that they are determined to pursue a European course when it comes to foreign policy. But Russia has plans for both elections. They aim to disrupt the vote in Ukraine, and hopes that right-wing nationalist and populist parties will do well in the European election, weakening the standing of the European Union, leading to conflict within the union. So the two elections are more closely related to one another than many Europeans think.
Gebert: The conflicts in Ukraine are barely being mentioned in the European election campaign -- as if the election were taking place on a different planet, as if what is happening in Ukraine were an insignificant, local event. But the Ukrainian conflicts are actually a defining event for Europe, because so much depends on how we react to Putin's provocations. Something similar happened in Bosnia in 1992 -- a land grab steered from within Serbia -- but Bosnia had no strategic importance, so we calmed down again quickly. But Ukraine is different. It is of existential importance to Europe.
SPIEGEL: People want a new, democratically elected government to quickly stabilize Ukraine after the presidential election. Isn't that asking too much, Mr. Shekhovtsov?
Shekhovtsov: The current Ukraine government is also democratically legitimate, because it was elected by the parliament. Nevertheless, the presidential election is important, mainly from an international perspective, a Western perspective, because the next president will be able to apply the power of the state, which the interim president could not do.
SPIEGEL: The elected president is supposed to apply the power of the state against the separatists in Donbas?
Shekhovtsov: I believe the new president will take a more aggressive approach against the terrorists than the current government is able to. An elected president will have the necessary authority.
SPIEGEL: The prevailing impression at the moment is that the Ukrainian security forces are not operating decisively or being particularly effective.
Shekhovtsov: The Russians infiltrated our security forces, and the local police are corrupt.
SPIEGEL: The next president won't be able to change that right away.
Shekhovtsov: No, the next president won't, but he or she will build a new security apparatus and change the entire system. We must bring about this change ourselves. We cannot wait for the sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States to take effect. The EU operates very slowly, and the votes within the apparatus and in the United States are dragging on. Meanwhile, the war is already underway. Ukraine must defend itself, its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.
SPIEGEL: What do you think is happening in Donbas, a war or a civil war?
Shekhovtsov: Because Russian aggression is behind the conflict, we are waging a war, not a civil war. And although you in the West have already forgotten about it, Russia annexed Crimea.
SPIEGEL: Europe and the West have apparently come to terms with that. Crimea is no longer an issue for them.
Gebert: Ukraine also lost Crimea because the armed forces received contradictory orders. The government owes the Ukrainians an explanation for that. But perhaps the decision not to fight actually ended up being a wise one. And now there is also a legal way to take action against the annexation. Ukraine can bring an action against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Last Monday, the court handed down a ground-breaking decision entitling Greek Cypriots to 90 million ($123 million) in compensation for non-material losses during the Turkish invasion (of 1974). The next Ukrainian government should take the same approach.
Snyder: By the way, there are people who are talking about Crimea, in particular the Crimean Tatars. This week, they are commemorating the 70th anniversary of their deportation to Central Asia under Stalin. Close to 200,000 people were crowded into trains and removed. Russians and Crimeans can leave Crimea, but the Crimean Tatars have no alternative, because Crimea is their home, the only home they have.
SPIEGEL: What motivates Putin?
Snyder: I think Putin is playing an all-or-nothing game, geopolitically speaking. He no longer cares about tolerable relations with the EU or about a solid relationship with Ukraine. Putin has opted for something else, a much larger project, to destabilize Ukraine and the EU. It's an all-or-nothing game because there is no going back, now that he has embarked on this path.
SPIEGEL: Can he win?
Snyder: There are two options now: Either he achieves his goals, or the European Union achieves political unity and ideological stringency. It would have to define itself as Russia's adversary and, most of all, develop a joint energy policy with which it could affect Putin. If the EU could do that, there would be radical consequences for Russia. Then Putin would have to fall back on China, and Russia would become China's Ukraine.
SPIEGEL: You are alluding to the possible establishment of a Eurasian union. Plans for such a union have been making the rounds at the Kremlin and within groups aligned with Putin. The project isn't being taken very seriously in the West. Is that a mistake?
Snyder: Of course. It's the ideological alternative plan to the European Union.
SPIEGEL: What are the core elements?
Snyder: The Eurasia ideologues dismiss liberal democracy as bankrupt, and as nothing but an alibi for US interests. They consider liberal democracies to be outdated. Both communists and fascists were as dismissive about democracies in the 1920s and 30s. Putin and his Eurasia ideologues consider the West to be too decadent, a postmodern approach on their part. They view European history as a sort of convenience store. They are reinterpreting European history, borrowing whatever suits their needs from Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. Russia is a radically conservative country today. It doesn't allow its citizens to live as they please, to love whom they please and to marry whom they want. The Eurasia ideologues see the treatment of homosexuals, in particular, as a problem that divides the global world.
SPIEGEL: That strikes a chord with the conservative nationalist parties hoping for a breakthrough in the European election. What makes Putin appealing to these right-wingers?
Shekhovtsov: He shares their hatred of the European Union. Like Putin, they too worship the nation-state as a backward-looking utopia. And they respect P utin because he advocates a strong state and doesn't care what the public thinks about him abroad. They also share his hatred of America, with its equal rights for different races, along with his hatred of homosexuals.