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Russia’s imperialistic behaviour is not going to go away only because of a peace or truce with Ukraine

przeczytanie zajmie 7 min
Russia’s imperialistic behaviour is not going to go away only because of a peace or truce with Ukraine Autor grafiki: Julia Tworogowska

The outcome of the war in Ukraine will depend very much on what the West is willing and able to do. The problem is that sometimes the fear among Western politicians of Russian collapse prevails. The war is not the cause of the problem in itself. It is a symptom and expression of a bigger crisis, which is the Russia crisis. The West is still ambiguous on the aim of giving Ukraine enough to fully win. I think the idea is still to arm Ukraine to be in a better position when the peace negotiations start. That is a harmful and short-sighted assumption. Fredrik Löjdquist, director of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS), talks with Michal Wojtylo about the future of Russian aggression on Ukraine.

Before we talk about the scenarios of ending the war in Ukraine, I would like to ask you what are the most important factors that are going to influence the future of Russian aggression?

There are at least 7 main arenas that will decide the future of the conflict. The first one is obvious – the situation on the battlefield. The second is our, Western (EU, NATO, G7) support to Ukraine – not only short-term (humanitarian, macro-financial, military) but also long-term in terms of reconstruction of Ukraine, EU integration and security guarantees.

The third factor is the West’s collective Russia policy. Our ability and willingness to hold Russia accountable and to exercise a cost for Russia’s imperialistic behaviour through sanctions and general isolation. The fourth factor is the internal dynamics in Ukraine – the resilience and unity of the Ukrainian society. That is the area where, so far, Ukraine really has overperformed any kind of reasonable expectations. However, if the war drags on – which I think it will – there will be questions on the internal factors such as military, politics and economics.

The fifth factor is the internal dynamics in Russia, which are very difficult to predict. Although we have Prigozhin’s mutiny (or whatever it was) just behind us I still think our main assumption must be that Russia will remain more or less like it is today in terms of policies and resilience, at least in the short-term. With or without Putin – the Putinist system may very well in some variant survive Vladimir Putin. However, this is a country and society which is under huge stress – it is at war, it experiences sanctions, economic boycotts and isolation in its relationship with “the democratic world”. Sooner or later it will have an effect on Russian society.

The sixth arena is the global one – how the war is perceived and what actions are made by the global actors outside of the West, not only China but also the Global South. Last but not least is the seventh factor – which is underlying a lot of what I already mentioned – is how the voters in EU and NATO countries perceive this war. Do they see what is at stake and what is needed to be done? That will very much decide the ability and willingness of the West to support Ukraine and also uphold the sanctions against Russia.

I am not quite sure that we yet have a good understanding of what’s at stake and that we have the political leaders that have explained well enough that there is not going to be a quick solution to the crisis. Putin plays for time. The war has become the new normal in Russia, and Putin’s message to the Russian nation is basically to get used to it.

Why does he think that time is on his side?

For at least 2 reasons. The first factor is that he bets on is that Western unity will start to crumble. Elections are coming up in the US and France that can change the situation. The second one is that if the war drags there will be a competition between military production capacities in the West and Russia. Russia is able to step up its military production capacity quicker than the West. However, in the long term, the Western military production capacity is far greater than Russia’s but it will take some time before we get there in terms of costs and political willingness – probably 2-3 years.

One important question here is the one of agency, which I would like to underline. When Western politicians and journalists ask us the question – how is the war going to end? – I always feel a little bit uncomfortable because that question presupposes some things. The first one is that it is going to end and that there is some kind of permanent solution.

The other assumption is that in the West we are fully objective, outside observers who can try to predict the future in some kind of laboratory situation. We are not, we are agents. The outcome of the war in Ukraine will depend very much on what the West is willing and able to do. When we are asked these questions we should return it to politicians and ask – what are you willing to invest in Ukraine. The Western agency, although not the only factor, is a crucial one.

How can we increase the support of the West? What are the arguments for it?

It is important to build a common collective political consciousness of the West that we agree on a desirable end state for Ukraine. When we discuss scenarios it is crucial that we keep the future of Russia separate from the discussion of the future of Ukraine. There is a tendency in the West for the Russia-first paradigm – focusing on what will Kremlin think? That sets the mental framework for our actions. The result is that our Ukraine policy has been a function of a Russia policy.

We need to turn the tables. The Russia policy should become subordinate to the Ukraine policy for several reasons. One is that Ukraine is something we can do about, and it is probably solvable, Russia may not be solvable. Therefore, we need to define what should happen with Ukraine and where do we want it to be? The only reasonable vision is to have Ukraine fully integrated into the EU and NATO. If we have agreed on this common vision, then a lot of debates become easier.

However, there is still present an unfortunate ambiguity from the West. We seem to be slowly moving to some kind of a consensus that, we should start EU membership negotiations, which may or may not at some point be successful.

And on NATO membership? Listening and trying to understand the discussions before the Vilnius summit, there seems to be quite strong resistance to this scenario from Biden’s administration and in some European capitals, such as Berlin. If we do not have this vision, it will be difficult to explain what we are doing and why, and also to have a more systematic long-term approach. We still have to build a shared better understanding among the voters in the EU and the US of what is at stake.

I hear this in the political speeches about Zeitenwende and historical changes in Europe. But I still see a lot of hesitation. We need to truly get away from the idea that this is a local conflict, somewhere in the strange place of Eastern Europe that we do not fully understand and that this could be solved by some kind of negotiations or compromises. And then we can go on and live more or less like we did before.

Why cannot the negotiations and compromises be the solution?

The war is not the cause of the problem in itself. It is a symptom and expression of a bigger crisis, which is the Russia crisis. Moscow’s antagonistic, imperialistic and colonial behaviour, its internal repressions and increasingly totalitarian system that is just not going to go away only because of a peace or truce with Ukraine, whatever peace means. Russia is in a systemic conflict with the rules-based international order and with the European security order. Russia has antagonistic goals which will not just go away. As long, at least, as the current regime is in power. Russia’s antagonistic external behaviour is a consequence of the nature of its political regime internally, and that will most likely remain.

We had the war against Georgia in 2008, the one against Ukraine has been going on since 2014. If they are willing to wage a war for 9 years to achieve their goals, they are willing to remain in war for another 9 years. It is long-term, structural and systemic. That means that the Russia problem cannot be quickly solved. It has to be managed through containment and deterrence. Even if Ukraine gives up Donbas and Crimea, that will not change the situation. Russia’s goal is the political subjugation of the whole of Ukraine.

Ukraine is fighting for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and there is no compromise there. If we do a compromise, then we will do the international law and the rules-based order permanent damage allowing Russia to harvest the fruits of its aggression.

But Ukraine issue can be solved by supporting them to a clear military victory. The West is still ambiguous on that aim because we are not giving them enough. I think the idea is still – the Biden administration has clearly said this – to arm Ukraine not necessarily to kick out the Russians of their territory, but for Ukraine to be in a better position when the peace negotiations start. That is a harmful and short-sighted assumption.

Another important point for the voters and politicians to understand is that all of the alternatives to Ukraine’s being able to restore its total integrity and sovereignty and to join EU and NATO, are worse and much more costly for the West. They are also worse in security terms because Europe will remain unstable.

In your view, the most probable scenario is the long-term conflict which means that we have to manage Russia. How should we do it?

For the long-term development of Russia, the single most important action is to make sure that Ukraine succeeds and that Kremlin fails in its goals in Ukraine. That is not only important for Ukraine and the European project, but it is also important for the future of Russia. If Ukraine can succeed, then potentially it could happen in Russia. That is why Putin had to start the aggression in 2014 as he could not allow Maidan to be successful.

Another lesson is that deterrence and NATO work. Russia has respect for Article 5. Kremlin has accepted and without any escalation previous NATO enlargements to the Baltic states, Poland and now to Finland. Once you are in NATO, you are safe and that will stabilize the situation.

We will have to invest in military defence. We need to uphold the sanctions and possibly strengthen them in some areas. The money we have to spend on supporting Ukraine should not be framed as a burden, but as an investment and not only in Ukraine, but also in the future of the European project, in our own security. If we do not do this investment, it will cost us much more further down the road.

However, I think the important question is now, how to enforce and uphold the sanctions that we already have. That means working with third countries. There is a lot of stuff going to Russia through third countries, but there are also important things that we have achieved – such as China not delivering lethal weapons to Russia and that’s a situation that we need to keep. The question is also, how good are we at enforcing the sanctions in our own systems? Probably there is a room for improvement.

The other point is that Russia needs to remain politically isolated in the international arena. Unfortunately. we have seen how some European leaders have been very keen to get on the telephone with Putin.

My worry with what happened during the Prigozhin’s mutiny is that we were back to focusing on Russia again, speculating on what is going on in Russia. Of course, we need to understand the internal dynamics there but that does not mean that we should forget that our focus should be on Ukraine. The problem is that sometimes the fear among Western politicians of Russian collapse prevails and there is a narrative of the breakup of Russia which releases nukes on the loose. That rhetoric is so dangerous because it means that we probably should support Putin and we cannot humiliate him too much as otherwise we will have Armageddon. No, we will not. Putin has shown in the past that he is a very rational and transactional leader. When he gets in it into a corner, he does not escalate.

We need to get away from this fear because that paralyzes us. There is the risk of nuclear escalation, but I do not see any rational scenario from a Russian point where a nuclear attack would do any sense, it would only harm Russia existentially.

You talked about the importance of the Global South and China. What should the EU’s policy concerning war in Ukraine be in the third countries? You can see a lot of Russian and China influence in Africa and in other parts of the world and they seem to be winning that information battle about the perception of the war in Ukraine. EU very often says it is due to a lack of advertising and communication. But that cannot be the only problem.

First of all, there is no such unity in the Global South. There is no one size fits all solution to this.

Our main argument to the third countries should be of respecting international law and the rules-based order. If you ask these countries individually – do you think that sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination of countries are important principles? – I do not see them saying ‘no’.

Is their attitude towards Russia’s aggression only a lack of information? Surely not, there are also sort of economic and historical arguments coming from Moscow and Beijing that speak to them. We need to frame Russia’s war against Ukraine as imperialism and colonialism.

There is very often a common argument of West’s colonization, coming from that side of the globe.

Exactly, there is a problem here. Colonialism and imperialism have been in many of these countries and in our own societies understood as something that only western European colonial powers or the US could be doing per definition, something that countries around the Atlantic do to other parts of the world. Therefore we have problems understanding Russia’s war against Ukraine as a colonial and imperial war. Of course, there are countries in Europe, which have a colonial past. We cannot shy away from that discussion. But there are also European countries like Sweden and Poland who actually has no or very limited colonial past and we can explain that these principles are existentially important to us. We need to engage in that discussion and we should not be scared of using words like colonialism and imperialism.

The EU has a lot to offer economically. We need to have a more holistic view on our security and foreign policy toolboxes and how to engage in the Global South countries in the transactional mode. But then we also should ask the question of whether Russia offers an attractive model for how to run a society and politics. I do not think that is the case. It is not like all the refugees want to go to Russia, they are coming to the EU.

Can we convince the rest of the world to have the same perception of Ukraine war? Probably not, but maybe we do not have to. The most important thing is that they do not actively support Russia. Not only in terms of the circumvention of sanctions and importing substitution but also in terms of the votes in the UN general assembly, if we are going to set up a tribunal for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

In the end, let’s go back into EU’s Ukraine policy. The Kyiv’s perspective is that they cannot quickly pursue important internal reforms because Ukraine is at war. The Western European countries say in return that they are not going to support Ukraine financially as much as they could because there is corruption and problems with the rule of law are still present. Also, there sometimes conclusion appears that the state of war is the best situation for changes, as there is more centralisation and unity. For example, for getting rid of oligarchs that is in some way already happening. What is your perception of this debate about the conditionality of the support for Ukraine?

War changes societies and states. In our understanding of what Ukraine is we remain in the frame of prewar stereotypes. As you said, the war sometimes helps in getting through some of the reforms. Ukraine has shown an enormous political and societal resilience and has changed a lot internally. This was also mentioned by Ursula von der Leyen. Despite the war Kyiv has been adopting a lot of reforms to enhance the EU integration and move to the start of membership negotiations.

The tolerance in Ukrainian society, right now, for corruption is very low. It has changed dramatically because, as Daria Kaleniuk from anticorruption think tank AntAC has put it, 'corruption kills’, and literally so. If in the country during the war you have a wide-spread corruption, the ammunition, the healthcare, the food etc do not reach the soldiers.

Of course, Ukraine is less than perfect when it comes to rule of law and corruption, but I am also questioning why do so many of the conversations I have with my western colleagues start with the statement that Ukraine is a corrupt country. When we start to discuss reconstruction in Ukraine, we need to work on transparency and anticorruption but that also involves ourselves – Western donors – who have been also enabling corruption in Ukraine. Where are these bank accounts with corrupt money? Before we just automatically start to point finger to Ukraine, let’s also have an honest discussion about the things that we can do in the West.

For all of Ukraine’s efforts to survive and succeed, the Ukrainian population and its government need to see that there is a clear end goal, that is EU membership. We have to keep Ukraine and Ukrainian politics on the current path. If the Ukrainian people feel that the EU is not going to let them in and that they are left on their own, it will create a precarious political situation. It is also the only way for successful reconstruction,  because it does not really become meaningful unless we know what we are transforming Ukraine into.

Fredrik Löjdquist – Director of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS). Former Swedish diplomat, with previous missions such as special envoy and ambassador for the Swedish Presidency of the EU in Georgia 2009, ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) 2012–2017, and most recently, Sweden’s first ambassador and special envoy for countering hybrid threats based in Stockholm 2018–2021.

Polish version available here


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The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.”