World-renowned journalist discusses the uncertain state of the former Soviet Union


Only a week after his return from a one-month stay in Ukraine, Lawrence Scott Sheets, South Caucasus Project Director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), arrived at Notre Dame to give a series of lectures sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies on subjects related to his experiences in this volatile section of the modern world.  On November 6, he delivered a lecture titled, “Russia and Ukraine: A View from the Ground.”

Sheets, who first visited Moscow in 1991, spent 8 years working in international journalism in Russia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Chechnya, where he covered civil wars and inter-ethnic conflicts, commodities, offshore oil agreements, production sharing agreements (PSAs), and a range of other pertinent topics in the region.  He returned to Moscow in 2001 after his appointment as Moscow bureau chief for National Public Radio and arrived—fatefully—on September 11, 2001.  Currently, in his work for the ICG, he focuses on Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Sheets lamented what he described as “decreasing expertise concerning the former Soviet Union” in the West, associating it with the corresponding decline in knowledge of Ukraine.  He attributed this to the diminishing interest in the study of the Russian language in Western countries, as well as the West’s “huge mistake” in 1992 and 1993—namely, abandoning interest in Russia as the Iron Curtain was lifted and tensions between East and West seemed to subside.

“Empires break down over a very long period of time,” Sheets explained. Comparing contemporary Russia to the United States during the Vietnam War, he maintained that, following their original expansions and declines, these empires often harbor implicit aspirations to “restore … power and pride.”

Vladimir Putin, Sheets believes, possesses such a perspective in his ambitions for Russia.  “What is happening in Ukraine today, I think, is somewhat a function of that,” he said.

Drawing on his firsthand knowledge, Sheets illustrated the instability of Ukraine by examining its ethnic, linguistic, and political diversity.  A television host in Ukraine might ask a question in Ukrainian and receive an answer in Russian, Sheets explained, and “nobody bats an eye.”  Regional divisions are rampant, and while some Ukrainians support the autonomy of their nation, others do not understand why they are not “simply an extension of the Russian Federation.”

Meanwhile, further east, Russia is suffering beneath the weight of a sliding currency.  The result, according to Sheets, will either be a default or hyperinflation.  Such destabilization in both Russia and the Ukraine would have implications “way beyond” the two countries.  However, equally concerning to Sheets is the European Union’s (EU) attitude toward the situation.

“There seems to be almost a conscious effort to avoid having to discuss what’s going on in Ukraine,” he asserted.  Those discussions that do occur in the EU concerning Russia and Ukraine have divided the organization into camps, allowing Putin to prove that the EU is “less than a union.”

In closing, Sheets recounted his recent visit to Mariupol, a coastal city in southern Ukraine.  Despite its role as one of Ukraine’s major ports and its population of approximately a half million people, Sheets described it as “deserted.”  He ascribed the lack of activity to a sense of fear that permeated the entire city.  “People put as good a face on the situation as they can, but the situation is not good.  It’s one of extreme uncertainty.”


Nicole O’Leary is a freshman theology and history major.  She never expected to end up in Indiana, but so far she’s been pleasantly surprised.  Contact her at