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A nation must think before it acts.
The following is a transcript of FPRI’s event with Nikolas Gvosdev, Valbona Zeneli, and Andreas Umland, held on February 24, 2022.
Nick Gvosdev: Articles that appear in the current issue of Orbis, which we started to plan last year, centered around the theme of Russia’s long shadow over Europe. We had no idea that that shadow would be materialized yesterday in Ukraine with military action—a major combined arms campaign, the resumption of warfare in Europe on a scale not seen in decades—really calling into question many of the pillars of the post–Cold War era.
What we have today for you are two eminent experts and scholar practitioners who have been dealing with questions of Russia, Ukraine, European security, and the trans-Atlantic relationship. Because of what’s been happening over the last twenty-four hours, many of our assumptions about how the world operates are now being questioned. We are entering into a new era and unknown territory—unknown ground.
Rather than trying to comment on the days of the news—trying to get a sense of what’s happening hour to hour—I think our two speakers are going to take the events of today based on what they wrote for Orbis and try to give us a sense of how we’re going to navigate this new territory—this unknown country, really—where the assumptions we’ve been operating with over the past thirty years are now being set by the wayside.
We have two very critical thinkers and long-standing experts on the region, who also happen to be friends of mine. It’s a real pleasure to welcome Dr. Valbona Zeneli and Dr. Andreas Umland virtually to this seminar. And I welcome you all to this event at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. It fits very much within our overall mission of trying to give you—the audience—the tools you need to understand and interpret the events of the day.
You received links to their articles in the invitation, and the links are being reposted in the chat as they appeared in Orbis. Full biographies went out for both of them. Dr. Zeneli is a professor and chair of strategic initiatives at the Marshall Center, which is a joint installation of the United States and Germany for educating people—particularly military officers who are charged with helping to ensure the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. And unfortunately, as at the Naval War College so with the Marshall Center—some of the alumni of our programs are this day being called on to exercise those duties to protect their homelands.
My other colleague and friend is Andreas Umland, who has been a resident of Kiev, I believe, for twenty years—although fortunately, or perhaps not fortunately, he is not in Kiev at the exact moment. He has watched many of these trends that we’re seeing today, in 2022, begin to unfold, both in terms of Ukraine’s push for joining the Euro-Atlantic community but also many of these negative trends that we have observed in Russia. He has been chronicling and charting all of this for many years. He does it from two perches: one as an academic and part of the famed Kyiv-Mohyla Academy—the historic institution of learning in Ukraine that was recreated after the fall of the Soviet Union—and also at the Stockholm Center for East European Studies. I believe he’s in Stockholm right now, where I’m sure they brought him in for consultations given the crisis—he’s speaking to us from Stockholm.
Dr. Zeneli, I’d like to turn to you first for your opening thoughts.
Dr. Valbona Zeneli: Thank you very much, Nick—thank you for this invitation. I want to apologize, first of all, because this is not the most perfect setting. I’m on the road, as Nick explained. I was part of the NATO conference that was organized by the government of Germany and the government of the Netherlands, focusing specifically on partnerships. The conference was held yesterday and today, and I’m traveling today.
Let me start with this: I think we all woke up saddened and devastated and heartbroken today. Not just me—a person who has great affinity for and great friends in Ukraine—but because I think what happened yesterday is going to change the history of Europe and is going to change the history of the world.
This was a blatant attack on a sovereign country. This is an invasion. This is a strong violation of international norms and law. I could go on and on, but this really is devastating for us all. Unfortunately, based on conversations with our friends and colleagues in the Ukraine, for a very long time they knew that this was not about if it was going to happen; it was mainly when it was going happen, because everything started in 2014. And not just in 2014—I could go back and say that everything started in 2008. I think President Putin has something with numbers, because in 2008 it was 8/8 (August 2008), and now it is 2/2022 (February 2022).
Before I continue, I forgot to mention that I work for the Marshall Center, but here I present my own thoughts as a scholar. I do not represent the opinion of the Marshall Center or the U.S. government.
So, three important points. First, why did this happen? We were all expecting different scenarios. I think everybody was wishing for the least violent scenario, but, as we’re seeing, it’s a blatant attack throughout and across Ukraine.
The first thing is that Ukraine is important for Putin. If we didn’t know that, it was made very clear in his speech—in his article that he wrote in July, 2021. Although he gave a very long history of why Ukraine is important for his new empire, based on the cultural, religious, and people-to-people ties, he was also specifically saying that there’s no Ukrainian sovereignty outside of relationship with Russia.
So that was simple and plain. And the second point that he mentioned was that the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Belarusians are one people. That was the second message. And this is what we’re seeing.
Ukraine is important for Russia—not just historically but in terms of economics. We should not forget that back in 2014, when the former Ukrainian president, Yanukovych, decided not to sign the association agreement with the European Union, under strong pressure from Russia, it was because Russia had established the Eurasian Economic Union. That union does not exist without Ukraine, because 40 percent of the union is the economy of Ukraine.
So the union—although it was sold as something very important, and something that will be very competitive in the global economy—right now it only makes up 4 percent of global GDP, and it would not exist without Ukraine. We should not forget the economic perspective—how important Ukraine is for Putin.
Putin cannot allow a Ukraine that is a free-market economy—a free, democratic country in a liberal system—because that will mean that other former Soviet countries will follow suit. And that is unacceptable for Putin. The choice of the Ukrainians to look to the West, the choice of the Ukrainians to aim for Euro-Atlantic integration—both EU and NATO integration—I think that was the biggest danger for Putin.
The second point is the regional perspective. There are frozen conflicts all over the region. We have Moldova, Transnistria, and then in 2008 we have Georgia—and now Ukraine, since 2014. The best way for Russia to disrupt the Euro-Atlantic integration process of the region is to make these countries feel like this—to put Ukraine on its knees—so that the government there will fail and then will be followed by a government that is a proxy to the Russians. The region is very important, not only in geopolitical terms, but also in economic and energy terms, for Russia.
The third thing is the transatlantic relationship and the European relations. I think Putin’s main objective is to divide the West—first, to divide the transatlantic community, and second, the European Union. We have already seen attempts that started years ago through mass disinformation campaigns, through using energy as a strong tool of leverage for Russia—creating these divisions inside the European Union.
I’m afraid that we’ll see the conflict continue for a long time, and that there’s going to be another tool that will be used to divide the European Union. That will be migration, because we’re going to have a migration crisis in Europe. Right now we have strong unity in the European Union. This is the good news—I think this is the unintended consequence of Putin’s behavior over the last few months. As in 2014, I think the unintended consequence was the unity of the Ukrainians and the gathering to create a Ukrainian national identity. And we’ll see it develop stronger, I would say, in the months and years to come.
We have seen this unity from the European Union. The second package of sanctions was pushed out today. Now, there are optimists and there are also skeptics. Some say that the sanctions are not enough, and we can argue about that. Maybe we have to be stronger, because I think that for the transatlantic community to respond to Putin, unity is the best deterrence.
Nick explained the article that we wrote together with former Deputy Assistant Secretary Mike Ryan looking at the transatlantic community. This is also what I talked about yesterday at the conference. I think that all recent events are driving home the reality that strategic competition today—great power competition—is centering more and more on forms of governance. I think this is where we are confronted with this bipolar perspective between democracy and autocracy.
We are in an age of disruption. What happened today showed that we are at the inflection point—which direction we will take depends on our actions. Unfortunately, for the last ten years, we have seen a huge rise in autocracy throughout the world. Unfortunately, autocrats are selling it sometimes as efficient. And unfortunately, in many countries, people are even starting to buy this narrative.
Perhaps now it’s time for the West, at this inflection point, to go back to basics—things we discussed seventy years ago, fifty years ago. What is democracy about? What are strong institutions about? Why democracy—although it is messy—is much better than autocracy. This is the new dilemma now—not just in Europe, but throughout the world.
Our competitive advantage is our democratic values, because they have created our way of life and our economic prosperity. Why do we have to react to what Putin is doing today? Because we have to protect our way of life. But our way of life—our prosperity, our democracy—was built on the foundation, seventy years ago, of this architecture of security for Europe.
What we need to do as a community of democracies and as a transatlantic community—but also NATO—will be to demonstrate resilience, demonstrate unity, and demonstrate autonomy.
We need to take a comprehensive approach to resilience: physical resilience, economic resilience, societal resilience, and also resilience of democratic processes. This is what we have to push more with our partners. This is what we should have done even better in the past—working with partners of NATO, with Ukraine, with Georgia, and with others in the Baltics. The second point is unity—unity of purpose and effort. This is the time to show unity. How do we include more countries in the free-market democracies, in order to eventually make them net contributors to prosperity and security? The third point is that we have to actively practice our collective autonomy as a transatlantic community, across the global commons. We have to start talking more about this—from freedom of the seas, to space, to the information environment, cybersecurity, climate change, and others.
Gvosdev: Andreas, the floor is yours.
Dr. Andreas Umland: Thanks a lot, Nick. Valbona has already said many things that I would’ve said, so maybe I can delve into some comparative and historical issues that brought us to this.
I was asked today by a journalist how one could explain this strange behavior of Putin. Especially being a German, this is not actually that strange. This is the behavior of a post-imperial or neo-imperial leader. We’ve observed that before in world history.
I don’t think, by the way, that Putin is a Russian Hitler, but a colleague and I have compared Putin—in terms of his biography and his coming to power in Russia—to Paul von Hindenburg, who was an old representative of the second German empire. He became the imperial president in the late 1920s and then actually made Hitler chancellor. Putin is no Hitler, but Putin is a somewhat typical post-imperial, neo-imperial politician in this situation—in the post-Soviet space. The behavior that he is now showing is also not specific to the post-imperial, post-Soviet space.
When, for instance, he now calls for a denazification of Ukraine, that reminds me of the justification for Russia’s involvement in a Moldovan conflict almost exactly thirty years ago, when the commander of the 14th Russian Army in Moldova justified the intrusion of this Russian army into an inner-Moldovan conflict with his observation that the new leadership in Chișinău—in the new Republic of Moldova that has had just emerged out of the Soviet Union—was worse than the SS. That was his justification. If that was true, then of course we should all welcome a Russian army going in there and solving this.
Since then, of course, this sort of discourse has been repeated many times with regard to the Baltic countries. In Georgia, the term “genocide” was used, and that is now also being used with regard to the invasion of Ukraine. And the whole fascism issue, of course, has been playing a lot. This rhetoric has had a large role in Russian propaganda since 2014, if not before.
In a way, the surprise of what we are just now observing in Ukraine could be, Why is it only happening—or why did it only start—in 2014, and not earlier—as in Georgia, as in Moldova? In many of the successor states of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union there were wars—in central Asia and the southern Caucuses and the western Balkans. Until 2014, Ukraine was exempted from this “rule,” as I would call it, in the post-Yugoslavian, post-Soviet space, where the only countries—or mostly the only countries—spared from war early on were those who had been given a membership perspective in the European Union and NATO. The others, like Belarus and Armenia, went back into the orbit of the former imperial nation.
Many of the other countries experienced some sort of instability or war. You could ask, Why did it not happen to Ukraine and in the 1990s, or after the Orange Revolution of 2004, or at other points in time? There was a lot of appetite in Moscow in the 1990s, long before Putin came to power, for Ukrainian territory. There were declarations—first of the Supreme Soviet, then of the state Duma—on Crimea. Lots of politicians had this idea—that Ukraine should not be separate from Russia.
That leads to my paper published in Orbis, in which I was trying to explain the surprising peace phase in Ukraine, and the peace between Russia and Ukraine until 2014, with interdependence theory—which, oddly, is the same theory that, at least for the last sixty years or so, has been a guidance for German foreign policy. I would say it is even a major idea that was underpinning German foreign policy—namely the idea that we Germans should build economic ties between peoples, especially between our country and other people, and this would then create peace, because the economic ties would make us dependent on each other and that would then be good for peace.
The odd thing here is that the very same interdependence theory is an excellent explanation for the twenty years of peace that Russia and Ukraine experienced from the breakup of the Soviet Union until 2014, because the countries were interlocked with each other through the Ukrainian gas transportation system, which was transporting, until late 2012, more than 50 percent of the Russian gas that was going to the European Union. And therefore Gazprom—and, one could argue, in a way, the entire Russian economy—was dependent on the Ukrainian gas transportation system, because Gazprom, as you may know, is subsidizing Russia.
It’s not paying much in taxes to the Russian state, but Gazprom is indirectly subsidizing the entire Russian economy—millions of Russian households. It’s also subsidizing such entities as Transnistria and lots of other projects of the Russian state. The major source of the money for these subsidies is energy exports—gas exports to the European Union. And for these exports—and for the existence, if you like, of Gazprom and the whole model that Gazprom and the Russian state have developed in the post-Soviet period—the Ukrainian gas transportation system played a crucial role—until 2011/2012, when Nord Stream 1 went into operation.
The other post-Soviet republics were not as lucky as Ukraine. They did not have this leverage over Russia. Those republics that did not have the luxury of getting support from the European Union and NATO early on—like, for instance, the Baltic republics, which were soon victims of Russian mingling, and they suffered from war and became failed states, basically. Here I mean, above all, Moldova and Georgia, and to some degree one could also apply that to Azerbaijan.
What happened in 2011/2012 was that the first Nord Stream pipeline weakened this tie between Russia and Ukraine. And surprise, surprise—in 2013, under the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, the pressure from Russia on Ukraine was increasing; the non-military pressure, the political pressure, the economic pressure was rapidly increasing. For instance, in August 2013, there was an almost-one-week full trade blockade between Russia and Ukraine. And then we eventually got the annexation of Crimea starting in late February 2014, and the war in Eastern Ukraine.
The sad story here—what we’re currently observing in Ukraine—is that this is not anything new. This is how former imperial nations, if they are not somehow contained, behave. This is also not something new for Russia—not even for Putin’s Russia. I mentioned the Moldovan experience that goes back thirty years. Russia is basically only doing now what it has been already before practicing—and what it has been practicing without being punished.
At least for the case of Ukraine, we had sanctions—minor sanctions, I would call them—since 2014. There were individual sanctions and companies were sanctioned. Then, in summer 2014, certain sectors of the Russian economy were sanctioned. In the case of Moldova, as far as I know, there were never any sanctions. As for Georgia, in 2008, I think, for three months the negotiations of a new corporation agreement between the EU and Russia were interrupted.
After the Russian invasion of Georgia and the recognition of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia as independent states by Russia, and some allies of Russia, we actually had a rapprochement and a warming of relations between the West and Russia. In Germany, we had the so-called partnership for modernization. And in regard to the U.S., we had the reset policy after these de facto—one could argue—annexations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. One could also add that the policy of Russia towards Moldova and Georgia was actually, until a day ago, more aggressive than towards Ukraine. The Moldovan territory occupied by a puppet state of Russia, this Transnistrian Republic in Eastern Moldova, occupies 12 percent of the territory of Moldova. And the two pseudo states on Georgian territory, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, occupy 20 percent of Georgian territory.
As we are now speaking, Russia has not occupied as much as 20 percent of Ukrainian territory. So in a way, it has not yet behaved as badly towards Ukraine as it did towards Georgia. Also, something I think that is sometimes forgotten is that the Russian violation of international law in Moldova for the last thirty years has, even from the Russian point of view, been a more strident one, until yesterday, than with regard to Ukraine and Georgia—because the so-called operational group of the Russian Federation in Moldova, which is the rest of the 14th Army in Moldova, which is located near ammunition storage in Transnistria, is actually stationed there against the will of the Moldovan government, in territory that Russia still accepts as being official Moldovan territory.
Unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic, Russia has never recognized Transnistrian history and the so-called Republic, but it has stationed in Transnistria an official regular Russian army unit. That is a violation, even from the Russian point of view, that we have only seen for the last twenty-four hours with regard to Ukraine. You could argue it had happened to Georgia in the period when Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not yet recognized, but Russian troops were already there. But it hadn’t yet happened to Ukraine, where until recently there were only irregular troops in Eastern Ukraine stationed officially, according to the Russian interpretation; and regular troops were only in Crimea, which officially, according to the Russian viewpoint, were in Crimea.
All these things were happening, but they were not punished. They were not sanctioned. The sanctions in 2014 were minor; they came too little too late. And now we have the result of all of this. I just hope that now, finally, we will get serious sanctions, because the leverage I think that the West has toward Russia is large. The sanctions that have been imposed so far are minor. There is still a lot of trade going on, as we speak, between Russia and the European Union. A lot of energy is still flowing from Russia into the European Union. As I mentioned, this is still important for Russia because it finances Gazprom’s subsidizing of the Russian economy and Russian private households. The oil exports are financing the Russian budget, out of which the current military operation is financed.
I hope that we will now finally get our act together and stop this, after thirty years of these operations, and contain Russia. We have the instruments to do it. I believe we have enough instruments to do it without any military involvement. The Russian economy is a small economy. In dollar terms it’s smaller than the Italian economy, and it’s deeply integrated into the world economy. It’s especially closely linked to the EU economy. The EU is by far the largest foreign investor in Russia. It’s still the largest trading partner of Russia. So it’s just a matter of political will.
We have also learned, for instance, in the European Union, that we can live without Russian gas, as Russia was not responding to the gas shortages in the last three months. Actually, the European Union has now found ways to import gas from other parts of the world—mainly liquified natural gas. We are prepared, and we can do it. It will cost us something, but it will be much more costly if this war continues. I think there’s too much talk about nice, feel-good issues like solidarity and international law and sympathy and empathy, and so on.
What we should be talking about is that there are four nuclear power plants in Ukraine, with fifteen active reactors. The largest nuclear power plant in Europe is in Zaporizhzhia. It’s now actually in the war zone, with six active reactors. That should be something of interest—not only to Ukrainians, but to all Europeans. If the Ukrainian economy collapses and the Ukrainian state collapses—as it is now becoming possible—we may not have energy, heating, or electricity; we would have problems with food supplies. Then we could get millions of refugees. Ukraine has forty million citizens. If only a fourth of them get moving, we will have a huge problem in the European Union.
And last but not least—and I’ve written many times about this—this is a huge violation of the entire logic of the nonproliferation regime—the regime for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Ukraine is an official non–nuclear weapons state that does not have any nuclear weapons, and it’s forbidden to have any nuclear weapons. Russia is an official nuclear-weapons state; it is allowed to have nuclear weapons. And surprise, surprise, Russia is now invading this non–nuclear weapons state. If Ukraine were a nuclear-weapons state, I think we would be in a very different world now.
And the biggest absurdity of all of this, of course, is that Ukraine came out of the Soviet Union as a large nuclear-weapons state, then it agreed to give its nuclear weapons away to Russia. It got the Budapest memorandum, and it signed the nonproliferation treaty, which, unlike the Budapest Memorandum, is a regular treaty—a fully ratified regular treaty, ratified also by Russia.
Russia is the successor state of the Soviet Union, one of the depository states of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, one of the guarantors of the nonproliferation regime—and now it is turning the purpose of the nonproliferation regime on its head. We can await this in the future. There may be politicians that will be learning—both from the Ukrainian fate and from the Russian behavior—that it’s very good to have nuclear weapons if you don’t want to be invaded. If you have an appetite for territory in a neighboring country, it’s also good to have nuclear weapons and to learn from the Russians—how to gain victories.
This is all a national interest of Western states—especially European states, but also all countries—to uphold the logic of the nonproliferation regime. And therefore, I think we should talk more about these issues than about solidarity, European values, and the humanitarian issues.
Gvosdev: Both of you have given us a lot to digest. Andreas, the last point probably would require another set of panels about the impact of these events on the whole effort to de-proliferate nuclear weapons, or states from gaining nuclear capability, or encouraging states to give up nuclear capability. We cannot help but think of the talks currently underway in Vienna with Iran and how these events have an implication for how those talks will continue.
I did want to draw back to some themes and then turn to questions—these questions of the ties between what the West is prepared to do and what costs the West is prepared to pay. Andreas, your point about interdependence theory and the assumption that keeping Russian energy flowing through Ukraine was a guarantor of stability—for many years Maros Seferovic was arguing in terms of trying to focus the European Union on this. Of course, as far as I know, as of right now, I have not heard otherwise that even if Ukraine is breaking diplomatic relations with Russia, energy is still flowing through the pipelines that transit Ukrainian space.
But also, even if Nord Stream 2 is suspended, Nord Stream 1, which connects Russia directly with Germany, is still flowing. Turkish Stream is still flowing. So two NATO allies with direct pipeline links to Russia are continuing to do that. There’s talk about joint action, and yet there’s some reporting this morning about Europeans states looking at second waves of sanctions, and there are already discussions about cutouts—“Sure we should sanction Russia, but not this little piece that matters to us.” I think it’s going to be interesting to see how all of this comes together.
A point that both of you raised is that we’ve seen this coming. This has been, in some ways, a slow-motion development. It’s not like this suddenly happened yesterday and we’re all caught by surprise. To the extent that the Russians said, “Look, we’ve done this a number of times. We’ve sliced off pieces of states. We’ve created frozen conflicts,” sooner or later a status emerges that the West learns to live with. But perhaps this has changed.
This is a direct lead-in to our first question, from Mark Kustra, who says, “It seems that Russia is committed to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and most likely will seek to install its own government. What can and should the other European states and the United States do to prevent this, or to at least mitigate this outcome in the long run?”
Andreas, I think this touches on your point—that we’ve seen, both in the Yeltsin and the Putin-Medvedev years, Russia make a change and then the West complains, imposes sanctions, and then learns to live with it. But Val as well—what are your thoughts about the next steps? If we have a change of regime in Kiev, what’s the approach?
Zeneli: Those were great points that Andreas raised, and a great question too. I’ll respond to this question, but I’ll pick up where Andreas left it, when it comes to the conversations throughout the region—the narrative that Putin has been creating throughout the region.
This conversation—this narrative—about the new security architecture in Europe, I think the Europeans should not allow this narrative at all. Going from country to country, you’ll see that sometimes there’s even acceptance of this narrative. Yes, maybe we need to sit together, and maybe we need to think about a new security architecture. But we should be clear and loud and united in saying that there is only one aggressive power here, and that is the Kremlin. It’s not the West that has go back and see what it did wrong.
We did not do anything wrong as the West. This is a very important part of narrative, because through the various disinformation campaigns and strategies, people are starting to buy this narrative, because they don’t want work. Of course, they say, “Well, we could have behaved differently.” That should not be allowed as a narrative to flow.
Responding to the question, having a crony government in Ukraine that does not look west anymore—that is a puppet of Putin—that has always been his aim. That’s why we saw 2014. But even from the term itself, the “revolution of dignity,” Ukraine has decided that they wanted to look west. They wanted to look at the West; they wanted to integrate with the West. And I think that is something that is completely unacceptable for Putin. I don’t know if he really understands what that means.
To the point of having a new government that’s closer to Russia and to the Kremlin—I’m afraid. I might be completely wrong, because we have been wrong over the last few weeks and months, too, because nobody was really seeing this coming. We were talking about it, but then we were behaving in a rational way and thinking about costs, benefits, and the reality on the ground, and so it did not make very much sense. But for him, it makes sense for his strategy. So, I’m afraid that the Ukrainians will not accept it long term—the Ukrainians in Ukraine—young people, but also the large Ukrainian diaspora.
Today, here in Amsterdam, there was a protest, and I saw young people on the train, and they had all come from the East as students here. And they said “We just want to go away. We left Ukraine because we wanted to be as far away as we could from Russia.” They know where they want to go. I’m afraid that in the long term it will not be sustainable, because all these actions will continue to create that national unity and national identity in Ukraine. And the objectives will continue to look to the West.
If I might follow up on another question—we talked about Georgia. We talked about Moldova. I think we need to bring Moldova back, as Andreas was discussing. We’re focusing on Ukraine now, but we have a democratic government—for a long time, after many years—in Moldova too. So that is still risky. Every successful case study of democratic governance is a big risk for Putin.
We need to pay more attention to what is going to happen in Moldova, where Putin has very strong leverage, especially when it comes to energy. One hundred percent of the energy—of the power plants—are in Transnistrian territory. The other country that we need to pay attention to is Belarus. One of the consequences of what we’re seeing nowadays will be a de facto unification of Russia and Belarus. There are talks out there that Lukashenko is trying to change his constitution to allow nuclear weapons in his territory. And those will of course be Russian nuclear weapons. That is the long-term challenge for the European capitals—for European security and architecture. I’m talking about all the countries on the eastern flank.
This will not just be a challenge for a few weeks or months; we don’t know how long Putin will be able to stay, because he is attacking—he is trying to invade. But I’m afraid that he won’t be able to maintain any invasion, because we have a different Ukraine—we have a different armed forces—they’re much stronger and more developed than back in 2014. And a strong political will, I would say, too, and a political will also in the society.
In terms of government, I think the people of Ukraine will not support a Russian proxy government. Now, what could be worse is a government that sells itself as a neutral one, as not close to Russia, but that will slow down the Euro-Atlantic integration process, or that may start to move away from the NATO objective—the objective of joining NATO—but that still appears not close to Russia—as a neutral government that is trying to bring peace to the country. I think that may be the riskiest thing for Ukraine going forward.
What should the West do? I think sanctions—we mentioned that—but strong sanctions. As Andreas mentioned, the Russian economy is strongly interrelated with the European economy, so sanctions will work in this case. We should send more weapons to the armed forces of Ukraine, to defend itself and its territory. Financial assistance is very much needed. Ukraine today is the poorest country in Europe. It has been for a few years now. Humanitarian assistant is very much needed. I think this is what the West should unite around and take action on quite quickly.
Gvosdev: Your last points there also seem to touch on the question that Charles Burhan had posed—although he does raise the question of German reluctance on this—about the military side that is providing weapons—providing the training—without necessarily getting involved.
Andreas, you also noted that even without thinking about a military-to-military response, the West really hasn’t unleashed the full impact of its financial and economic power. As you’ve said before, the sanctions have been relatively minor. I think that you saw this in Russian boasts about being able to survive sanctions—because, in a way, we never imposed the full weight of what we could have.
Umland: First of all, about a new regime—a new government—I’ve lived in Ukraine for twenty years now. I cannot imagine how this would emerge, even a neutral government, because you would have to have some procedure to determine who that would be. There couldn’t be a government where Putin just said, “This is the government I like.” There would be no acceptance of that. And if you have elections, even a neutral party would probably have problems getting votes. The only thing that would be possible would be some occupation regime—a fairly terroristic occupational regime—that would basically replace most of the current elite and then perhaps put in some Quisling. But this would have to be based on terror. This wouldn’t be some sort of accepted regime.
The Ukrainian political tradition is just very different. The Ukrainians kicked out their first president in 1994—when they kicked out Leonid Kravchuk and put in Leonid Kuchma. So this is not like in other regions of the world, where you could frame some sort of government and then have some pseudo procedure to legitimize it, and then people will somehow accept it. That’s not possible in Ukraine. So, I fully agree with what Valbona said.
As I see it, the problem that we still have in countries like Germany—and I guess in other, especially continental, European countries—is that the whole debate is between morality on the one side: our sympathy for Ukraine, and maybe also for Georgia and Moldova, and empathy, and humanitarian issues, and “We’ll send help” and so on. And then we have the interests on the other side—the economic interests, the larger geopolitical interests, the national interests of the parties, and so on. At the end of the day, Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia are not members of the EU. They’re not members of NATO.
This is actually becoming very problematic, because if you have a few hundred thousand refugees from Ukraine, maybe the EU can handle that. But if the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth million comes, then the question is simply, “Who will take them? Where will they be located? Who will feed them?” These are not all IT experts that would be coming—these would not be immigrants or labor migrants, but refugees. They need to be put somewhere if they cannot live in Ukraine anymore. And there’s no physical border. I cannot imagine what would happen on the Ukrainian-Polish border, if you have these large refugee streams. Will we put a wall there, or would we shoot at the refugees?
There’s no solution to that. Neither the EU nor NATO can provide a solution for that. The same goes if, God forbid, something happens to these fifteen nuclear reactors in Ukraine. The problem is not so much that they will be hit by grenades but that they need certain personnel and infrastructure to function properly. Ukraine needs these nuclear power plants, because otherwise there’s not enough electricity in the country. There’s no real choice—they have to work well, and they need all the engineers to be there—all the equipment working, and so on. How do you do that in a war situation—especially in Zaporizhzhia, where the largest nuclear power plant in Europe is located—not just in Ukraine?
What are NATO and the EU going to do with that? These are not organizations that can deal somehow with that. We have to get to a discussion about the national interests of Western European countries. Once this starts, maybe then there is a chance to become finally serious and to not talk anymore about development and help and solidarity and European values and all of this. We need to get down to the real issues of national interests.
Gvosdev: To close, both of you have been talking about the question of refugees and migration, and Ryan Dow had posed the question of whether or not sparking refugee flows is part of Putin’s strategy—of seeing that movement of large numbers of people into Europe. It could strengthen authoritarian populous movements; it can be used as an issue. It becomes part of the question, “Why are these people here? This fight is not our fight, and we should find some accommodation with Russia.” We have elections in Hungary coming up where the fate of Victor Orban will be decided. We have elections in France and elsewhere.
Are these unintended consequences, or are they perhaps intended consequences? This is one of the fracture points of European unity—to say, “We’ll use the flows of people as a way to create issues.”
Zeneli: That’s a great question. I think that it is an intended consequence of the strategy of divide and conquer in Europe.
Unfortunately, not just now, but over the last decade, we have noticed in Europe a regionalization, if I might call it that, of security threats. We already knew that countries on the eastern flank would see Russia as the main security challenge, but that was not true for countries like Italy or Spain or those in the south that suffered more from the migration crisis in 2015–2016, and even before then. So we had this regionalization of security threats.
I think we have an example with what happened with Belarus—just a couple of months ago, migrants were used as a tool of hybrid war. Why not call it that? Although, in this case, the European Union responded with the right approach, defending the new countries from these hybrid attacks—because migrants were used, in this case.
But in the case of Ukraine, we’re talking about a country of 42 million inhabitants. So if attacks will continue, we foresee massive migration flows into European countries. At the very beginning—I agree with Andreas—it will be felt that we have to be in solidarity with people. But in the long term, that will change political dynamics in elections in Europe, and we will definitely see a rise of populism like we saw in 2015–2016.
I think the history will repeat itself. And Putin, if we want to be fair, is not that smart, because he’s using the same playbook over and over again. I think it’s the West that’s not understanding it—that isn’t using the necessary or appropriate approaches. And of course, countries have their own economic interests too. We should not forget that we still have a devastating economic situation throughout Europe because of the COVID crisis. That is definitely going to change the political dynamics in the national politics of European Union countries.
Just one final point about the European Union. The very strong messages from Ms. Von der Leyen on European unity and sanctions are very important. But before the sanctions, we saw more bilateral talks. France with Russia; Germany with Russia. We have not seen that strong EU response. At the end of the day, it falls to the most important countries of the European Union to have a strong voice.
If there is any optimism, or if there is anything positive, in this devastating situation—which it’s hard to point to—it’s that the response of Germany has been a tough one. President Steinmeier of Germany was very open regarding the security risk and the aggressiveness of Russia for European security. He said, “It’s very clear—there’s only one aggressive power in Europe, and that is Russia, with its behavior recently.” And also what we have seen from Chancellor Scholz and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. We have had very strong, strict signals and a strong narrative coming from the German government. So hopefully we’ll see more European unity in the future.
I would like to close with what I started with—that I think our unity is the best deterrence. Putin is just trying us. If we’re not strong enough now in Ukraine, it’ll be the Baltics next; it’ll be other countries. We should not forget the Western Balkans. With what is happening in the Ukraine right now, the risk is very high with Bosnia and Herzegovina—with relations between Kosovo and Serbia. These are all regions that are not stable yet.
And just one final reminder regarding European security. We talk a lot about defense budgets and how the United States covers between 70 and 80 percent of NATO’s budget and how EU and NATO countries need to increase their share in the budgets. The budget was closer to parity back in the late ’90s, when we had war in the Balkans. What has happened has made it clear that NATO is the main security umbrella of the European Union. We’re talking about more responsibility for EU member states of NATO that can serve as first responders in this case—on European soil.
Gvosdev: Andreas, final thoughts?
Umland: Going back to the topic of my paper for Orbis, I think that the country that most should be asked from is Germany. Germany has a special relationship with Russia. Germany has not yet delivered any weapons to Ukraine, although Ukraine has requested that—even though Germany is one of the largest weapons exporters in the world. I don’t think German weapons are necessary in Ukraine, but what is necessary from Germany now is to ensure that the European Union takes strong steps and that we actually see action after all the good words.
I agree with Valbona that we have seen a surprising turnaround—or not that surprising, but finally—we have seen a turnaround of many of the politicians who were talking differently. The Social Democrats basically have now fully come around. Even the Left party now is rather critical of Putin. And even the far right—the Alternative for Germany—has now criticized the recent escalation.
That is something good that has happened in Germany, but I’m still waiting for action. There was too much talk in the past, too much diplomacy, too many nice words. We need Germany to use its influence and its economic power to finally create peace in Eastern Europe.
Gvosdev: I think that’s a perfect thing to wrap it up on. There have been a lot of statements, but we need to see what the action is.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.