Melinda Haring H-Ukraine “Spotlight” Interview
Melinda Haring is the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center
H-Ukraine: Currently, you are the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center where you work on issues concerning civil society, democracy, and conflict in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, among other countries. Can you tell us more about the mission of the Atlantic Council and your role within the organization?
MH: The Atlantic Council is a nonpartisan organization that galvanizes US leadership and engagement in the world, in partnership with allies and partners, to shape solutions to global challenges.
The Atlantic Council is one of the top think tanks in the United States with 15 centers. I help run the Eurasia Center. Last year, I built our Belarus program and have helped build our Ukraine in Europe initiative over the past seven years.
H-Ukraine: How did you become involved in this type of work? What was it about Eurasia that first drew your interests to the region?
MH: The journey from Kenai to Kyiv is not all that surprising. I was born in a small village in Alaska with a Russian Orthodox Church, and my mother was a missionary in Alaska before she had children. I grew up surrounded by her stories, inspired by her adventurous spirit, and I was always fascinated by the other. When the Soviet Union fell apart, Russians started to pour into Alaska, and I began to study Russian in elementary school but got pulled into US politics in college. After I had exhausted all of the US politics courses at Grove City College, I reluctantly took comparative politics and worked as a research assistant to Dr. Paul Kengor, who was finishing God and Ronald Reagan. I was hooked on Eastern Europe after Kengor’s book and a trip to Prague. My desire to keep going east has never faded.
H-Ukraine: Although your responsibilities and tasks cover multiple countries, you have worked extensively on Ukrainian issues, including serving as the previous editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog. How did you become interested in Ukraine? What do you find to be so important about the country, and why have you dedicated your career to studying and working on issues related to Ukraine?
MH: I ended up in Ukraine accidentally. In 2007, my boyfriend at the time had won a Fulbright to Kyiv, and I was miserable in Washington working on Saudi Arabia. I desperately wanted to pivot and work on Eastern Europe. After finding a job in Kyiv teaching English as a Second Language on the internet, I joined him. I’d always wanted to be a writer, so I started to freelance as well. My open schedule – I only taught four days per week – allowed me to travel constantly. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty commissioned us to write about the Bashkan (governor) of Gagauzia, the semi-autonomous province in southern Moldova, and I wrote a hard story about jaw-dropping racism at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. My foreign students from Iran were getting beat up and feared for their lives. I showed up at a protest and captured their fear and the incompetence of the administrators. The power of the pen has never left me. I’d intended to stay for six months but couldn’t get enough of Ukraine. I ended up staying for 18 months and then went to Georgetown for a master’s degree in Russian and East European Studies. Before the global pandemic, I went to Ukraine four times per year.
Ukrainian’s unceasing quest for justice and unquenchable desire for freedom inspires me. When I was an English teacher, I spent hundreds of hours talking to ordinary Ukrainians about their hopes and dreams after the disappointment of the Orange Revolution. That experience and vantage point enables me to write about Ukraine deeply and from a non-elite perspective. I’m not especially interested in the high politics.
By training, I’m a social scientist who was lucky enough to study with Dr. Larry Diamond when I was at Georgetown, and I’m fascinated by social change. Since 2014, Ukraine has been a unique laboratory for social change because all options are on the table. There’s an enormous sense of optimism and willingness to experiment with bold policy ideas that there isn’t in the US.
H-Ukraine: The war in eastern Ukraine has been occurring since 2014, but it is the buildup of more Russian troops in late 2021 and early 2022 along Ukraine’s borders that has renewed general interest in the region. At a moment when high-stakes diplomatic talks are attempting to avert further Russian invasion and more war, what is the role of your team at the Atlantic Council in finding a solution to the current situation? What types of initiatives have you undertaken to find suitable outcomes for all parties involved?
MH: We started the Ukraine in Europe initiative after Putin’s little green men rolled into Crimea in 2014. There was hardly any information available in English, so we quickly stood up a team and started to produce our award winning UkraineAlert blog. We use our voices to push the US government to enact stronger policies, we analyze the current situation in articles and interviews, and we build coalitions to press the West to do more for Ukraine. We are not diplomats, so we aren’t actively involved in finding a solution to the situation, but many of my colleagues are former diplomats, so we are constantly offering solutions and trying to encourage the US government to design robust policies that will deter Putin.
H-Ukraine: There are many of us who study Ukraine professionally, in various ways, for a living and understand what’s at stake in the current moment. However, I think we must remember that there are many people outside of these specialist circles that still find themselves wondering why Ukraine matters so much to the United States and its partners. What would you tell the non-specialist American citizen who asked why they should care about Ukraine?
MH: If Putin wins in Ukraine, he will seize more of Europe next. Rolling over in Ukraine will embolden the Chinese in the South China Sea and with Taiwan. This current escalation is about far more than Ukraine. Putin is using Ukraine as a lever to end the westernizing drive there, pull NATO apart, rewrite the European security architecture, and humiliate the United States. I don’t want to live in a world where might makes right, and I don’t want my daughter too either.
H-Ukraine: What resources would you recommend to those wanting to learn more about Ukraine and what is happening currently?
MH: Our UkraineAlert blog is a great place to start!
H-Ukraine: As we always do, we want to know about your favorite place in Ukraine! When you travel there, where do you often find yourself? Where do you recommend people go when they visit? I also understand that you have put together a guide for great eats in Kyiv. Where can we find your recommendations?
MH: I had the great joy of taking my brother Benjamin to Ukraine this summer and showing him Kyiv and Lviv. He’s a history buff and he was blown away. I love anywhere that serves good syrniki and coffee, which is virtually anywhere in Ukraine now. I’m not going to lie – there’s Kyiv and Kyiv – but Lviv has grown on me. Seeing Seal perform at the Lviv Jazz Festival and subtly encourage people to love everyone regardless of skin color was the highlight of 2021 for me. Ukraine is my second home, and I love sharing a meal with my friends.
This summer I had some fun and wrote two columns about my favorite restaurants in Kyiv and Lviv. I live in Washington, DC, and the food scene here is supposedly amazing. I wrote these columns because the restaurants in Kyiv and Lviv are far more creative and a fraction of the cost. I would rather eat in Kyiv or Lviv than Washington any day of the week.