Shooting resumes in the Donbass civil war
by Richard Sakwa & David Broder
Feb 20, 2022
Not so long ago, Ukraine was committed to neutrality. If Ireland can be neutral, if Austria can be neutral, if Finland can be neutral, then why not Ukraine, especially since there is a large constituency for it in Ukraine itself? After all, this was the official Ukrainian policy until the neo-nationalists came to power in 2014.
Sharp shooting resumes in the civil war in Ukraine’s Donbass region. © TASS
“Biden’s escalation with Russia is an appalling concept”
Editorial British Russia and Ukraine expert Richard Sakwa analyzes U.S. Russia policy and sees the West’s mistakes.
[This interview published on 2/20/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.infosperber.ch/politik/welt/bidens-eskalation-mit-russland-ist-ein-entsetzliches-konzept/.]
(cm) Richard Sakwa is a professor at the University of Kent UK and specializes in the politics of Russia and post-Soviet countries. In an interview on the topic of the current West-East conflict, he explains the complex political structure of Ukraine and why the West supports the wrong minority there. The interview was conducted by David Broder – A guest contribution.
David Broder: In the Western media, Ukraine is often defined almost exclusively in terms of its enmity with Russia. A Times headline quoted a general as saying, “Ukrainians are ready to dismember the Russians with their bare hands.” Especially after the 2008 NATO summit, it is also believed that the Ukrainians want to join NATO, but Russia is preventing them from doing so. What evidence is there of this?
Richard Sakwa: This goes back much further than the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, where both Georgia and Ukraine were invited to join NATO. It’s the way Ukrainian policy was shaped for a long time toward the so-called European decision – which itself was very controversial, as poll after poll showed that the Ukrainian public was divided. It has wavered somewhat over the years, but basically the western part of Ukraine, that part we would call the Galician element [and which historically belonged to Austria-Hungary until the end of World War I, ed.], wants not only to join the West but to cut all ties with Russia.
Post-colonialism, if this term may be used in this case, assumes hybridity after being colonized, for example, on the linguistic and cultural level, while the cultural separatists believe that it is post-colonial only with a hyphen, that is, that one must erase all previous connections. The southern and eastern parts of the country, however, are more inclined to maintain close ties with Russia. In a way, Vladimir Putin is right when he says that Russians and Ukrainians are one people in terms of culture, history, intermarriage, and so on. He never said that they should be one state – and that is a fundamental difference.
When I traveled through the Donbass in 2008, there was “No to NATO” painted all over the walls of buildings. Now, on the other hand, we’ve seen the WikiLeaks documents from the State Department, released in 2010-11, showing endless messages from the U.S. ambassador in Kiev saying that people were eager to join NATO. This was a fanciful and artificial idea from the beginning, assuming that the decision was simply and clearly in favor of the West. Russia was then portrayed as holding Ukraine back geopolitically, developmentally, and especially in terms of democracy.
However, the situation is much more complex, as opinion polls continue to show today. Gerard Toal and his colleagues have shown that an astonishingly high proportion – 30 or 40 percent of the population, even if Crimea and the Donbass are not counted – wants close relations with Russia. Some even want to join the Eurasian Economic Union. So this is what Zbigniew Brzezinski, and earlier especially Samuel Huntington, described as a divided country, a divided country. It is therefore wrong to assume that the Ukrainians have clearly decided in favor of NATO. But this decision has been imposing itself since the formation of the neo-nationalist government in February 2014 after the events on the Maidan.
David Broder: From Volodymyr Ishchenko’s analysis of these differences of opinion, the impression is that support for joining NATO was very low in the 1990s but has now increased, and it is easy to imagine that the 2014 war has hardened the differences. However, the election of Volodymyr Selenskyj in 2019 was clearly seen as an expression of the people’s will to reduce tensions: In that election, pro-Maidan forces lost support after he came out in favor of respecting Minsk II. Why did that not materialize in practice?
Richard Zakva: Yes, Selenskyj was elected as a peace candidate. But I would go further and say that when Petro Poroshenko was elected in May 2014, he also came out as a peace candidate – people also elected him because they saw him as an oligarch with close ties to Russia and so on. But neither was able to push through a cooling of tensions.
In December 2019, the Normandy format met with Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and France, and Selenskyi’s chief of staff tried to move the process forward. But even during the meeting, people on the Maidan mobilized and said that they would not accept negotiations or the implementation of the Minsk II agreement if it meant granting autonomy to the Donbass.
So the first factor is that there is a highly mobilized, radicalized minority in Ukraine that is holding politics hostage. Secondly, this minority – even if some of its more vile manifestations [obviously meaning the neo-Nazis, ed.] are kept silent – is geopolitically supported by the Western powers, by what I call the Atlantic power system. It is not only NATO, but also – and this is a scandal, in my opinion – the European Union, which has not really respected its own principles.
Even worse than Poroshenko, Selenskyj has undermined Russian-language cultural and media institutions in Ukraine and propagated a distorted view of history. In a sense, then, external and internal factors have worked together. Despite all this, opinion polls show that Ukrainians remain divided, even though there has been a convergence in favor of defending Ukraine’s state sovereignty.
In fact, Ukrainians are generally a very peace-loving people. That is why it is so disastrous that we now have to talk about war and conflict. But all this is part of a bigger picture, a second Cold War. But if it is a real Cold War, then we have to learn how to deal with conflict. My point is that today we are in a slow-motion Cuban Missile Crisis. It was resolved peacefully in October 1962. The Jupiter missiles were withdrawn from Turkey, the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles from Cuba, and the United States promised not to invade Cuba.
That is ultimately what Putin wants. Boris Yeltsin before him and Mikhail Gorbachev before him have also always argued that extending the Atlantic military security system to Russia’s borders is unacceptable. So this issue has been dragging on for thirty years now. Putin said in his 2018 State of the Union address, “You didn’t listen to us then, so listen to us now” – when he announced hypersonic missiles and other things. That is the background of where we are today.
But at the end of the day, society in Ukraine is internally divided. There is a large peace contingent, but the worst elements of the Ukrainian population are being strengthened by the West’s support for short-term geopolitical gains. Not so long ago, Ukraine was committed to neutrality. If Ireland can be neutral, if Austria can be neutral, if Finland can be neutral, then why not Ukraine, especially since there is a large constituency for it in Ukraine itself? After all, this was the official Ukrainian policy until the neo-nationalists came to power in 2014.
David Broder: Some reports highlight Mikhail Gorbachev’s comments that NATO’s eastward expansion was never discussed at the end of the Cold War to refute the Russian government’s claim that “promises were made but not kept.” But they perhaps miss his broader point, which is that NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement not only excluded Russia as a possible member, but that it was directly directed against Russia. How seriously should we take the proposal put forward by Gorbachev, and after him by both Yeltsin and Putin, of a “Greater Europe” that includes Russia, as an alternative to this second Cold War?
Richard Sakwa: Definitely take it very seriously. It is not only Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin who have advocated this idea. It is, as we know, a Gaullist idea that Europe must ultimately take its destiny into its own hands. François Mitterrand also spoke of a confederation of Europe.
Gorbachev made a misleading statement that there had been no commitments not to expand NATO, but no one really understands why. All National Security Archive documents released in 2017 show that dozens of Western leaders said NATO would not expand beyond a unified Germany. That is unambiguous. It is part of the extraordinary propaganda war we are now in when Western scholars and politicians say there was no promise. (Just a few days ago documents were found proving again that the West had promised not to expand NATO. See the blue box below. Red.)
Ultimately, at the end of the Cold War, there were two peace orders, both of which were good. There was the Western one, “Europe whole and free.” The “Common European House,” on the other hand, was based on the idea of transformation. It was not even that NATO enlargement as such was so bad, but that it took place without a proper framework in which Russia’s security interests could also be taken into account.
A “Common European House” is the only way forward. People may make fun of it now, but I don’t. And there are many people in Russia who see it the same way – liberals and even some conservatives. The question is what form this should take. Gorbachev and others actually wanted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to become the main security body, with a Security Council acting like a regional UN, which would have solved the problem. Then NATO could have been expanded. In many ways, some of the arguments in favor are quite good. NATO prevents small states from going to war with each other, and hopefully it will continue to prevent Turkey and Greece from coming into conflict.
But public opinion in Russia is not ready for war, quite the opposite.
Public opinion in Russia is not ready for war – quite the opposite! But Russia has to be included in the security order in one way or another, and that is exactly what has not happened. There was the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council of 1997 and then the NATO-Russia Council of 2002, but those were what I call appeasements and not a real resolution of the issue. Undoubtedly, since 2018, Putin and his team-his hardliners-have said, “Enough of this, we can’t trust the West, they’re moving on the border.” And it’s not just NATO: it’s also, in particular, the ballistic missile defense facilities being built in both Romania and Poland, and the MK-41 Aegis Ashore. So when it comes to endless provocations that Moscow would consider military exercises – B-52 bombers flying along the Russian border that can carry nuclear bombs, warships in the Black Sea without end – common sense says that eventually there will be a counterattack. And the frightening thing about this second Cold War is that few in the West really understand how much is at stake.
David Broder: We have said that Ukraine is not a monolith, but certain forces want to increase tensions with Russia for their own reasons. Something similar could be said about Russia itself. Apart from Alexei Navalny, who in his commentary in Time accuses the West of playing into Putin’s hands and also calls for the West to stop appeasing him, there are also opposition forces that criticize Putin, but not from a pro-Western perspective. What value should we place on the idea that Putin is making his demands in order to manage the domestic situation, to rally the population around the spectacle of conflict-or, as some say, even to try to drive up gas prices?
Richard Sakwa: One of the most troubling elements today is that liberals in Russia are trying to compensate for their domestic weakness by harnessing the support of the West, but this only weakens them at home. Opinion polls showed only 1-2 percent support for Navalny when he was still at large, and even today, despite the great publicity of his imprisonment. So liberals are caught in this death spiral, where they are portrayed in that awful Cold War language as “fifth column” and “red herrings,” which of course is not true for most of them, since they are only advocating for more constitutional rights, democracy, and so on. This is the dangerous game they play with the West.
But public opinion in Russia is not ready for war, quite the opposite. By the way, the same is true for Ukraine; only the Western population seems to be upset now. Ukrainians are peaceful, and so are Russians.
The claim that Western commentators keep making that Putin is engaging in saber rattling to distract from his declining popularity in the country is completely false. His popularity has fallen, but for someone who has been in power for twenty years, it is still at an excellent level (65 percent approval). I am not an offensive realist of the ilk of John Mearsheimer, who claims that domestic politics has no bearing on foreign and security policy, although I certainly agree with his argument.
Basically, the hardliners in Moscow have said, ‘Enough is enough, we’ve been played for fools by the West, we really need to start fighting back.’
I have always defended an ‘intra-party’ view of Russian politics: there are very strong different tendencies, from the broad population up to the divided elite. As far as I know, the so-called pragmatists in the Kremlin and the ruling elite have lost their position since the fall of 2019. Basically, the hardliners have said, “Enough is enough: we’ve been taken for fools by the West, we really need to start fighting back.” Unfortunately, this included the suppression of domestic opposition, which I think is a big self-inflicted blow, as it was in Soviet times. This internal repression does not add to the credibility of Russia’s foreign policy measures. These could make perfect sense, as we have said – this is clearly about security. But that is undermined, for example, by the attempts to close [the human rights organization] Memorial. For me, the existence of Memorial, which was able to continue to operate more or less normally, was a symbol that ultimately there was still some degree of pluralism and openness. But since the fall of 2019, the government has been resisting this quite massively.
David Broder: British media coverage often focuses on our responsibility not to “appease” Putin. In German politics, too, there is this analogy to World War II [meaning the parallel to “Munich 1938,” ed.], with Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock saying Berlin has a duty to protect these states for “historical reasons.” The idea that small countries like the Baltic states should be able to decide for themselves and not be left defenseless, which is basically what Putin is advocating, sounds tempting on some level. But of course, there is also a problem with this analogy, insofar as it reimports a trope, a metaphorical view, into Western politics that demonizes all critics or those who are not strict supporters of rearmament as latter-day “appeasers.”
Riachrd Sakwa: The tendency you mention is even worse than in the first Cold War, because at least then there was some diversity and debate. I mentioned de Gaulle’s France, and in West Germany there was the Ostpolitik, which emphasized change through engagement, back in the early 1960s. What is so shocking today is that there are so few voices of opposition. Instead, there is this endless trumpeting of unity among the Atlantic powers. Unity is a good thing only if it is based on sound policy, not if it is a hodgepodge of false analysis talking about brave little Ukraine opposing Russia as a revisionist power. Germany is to be commended for its handling of history, but there is nothing more dangerous than applying it to another historical situation. Any idea of talking about engagement – classic German policy – and even pushing ahead with Nord Stream 2 are being labeled and condemned as “appeasement” of Russia.
This is a complete misunderstanding of the situation today. Putin does not want to resurrect a Soviet empire. Our defense minister in Britain, Ben Wallace, said this week that Putin is an ethno-nationalist. That could not be more wrong: There are at least 150 major nationalities in Russia today. Putin has repeatedly condemned ethnonationalism: He is tearing the country apart. So if Western politicians get the most basic things wrong, they will also get the big geopolitical things wrong.
So, in my opinion, the current situation is much more dangerous because there are only a few brave people who condemn it. I’m glad that the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has developed; there are a few people in the United States, though shockingly few in the United Kingdom – and I think the tide has turned in Germany, too, especially among the Greens, who are just Clintonian liberal interventionists of the worst kind: Cold War hawks.
The solution is quite simple
Foreign policy should always be a balance between interests and values. If Russia wanted to invade and suppress Ukrainian democracy just like that, I would be the first to support Ukraine. But that is not what we are talking about here. Putin’s so-called revisionism is not of the Adolf Hitler kind. This endless, even implicit “reductio ad Hitlerum” [tracing back to Hitler, ed.] is simply nonsense in this case. When Putin came to power, he even said that Russia would join NATO. The elite and leaders in Russia are rational. They are not trying to build an empire. They simply say, “Our backs are against the wall. Listen to us already.”
The solution is simple: neutrality for Ukraine. No one is going to take it on. Putin has supported the Minsk II agreement, which is a framework for returning the Donbass to Ukrainian sovereignty. What does this have to do with empire? Today, there are 2.5 million people living in the Donbass who have their own opinions. Putin first mobilized because Ukraine also has 100,000 troops on its border, with the Turkish drone missiles that proved their effectiveness in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year. So there was real concern in Moscow that they might do what Croatia did in “Operation Storm” when it attacked Serbian enclaves in the mid-1990s. It’s a complicated situation, but the broad outlines are pretty simple and clear.
David Broder: Earlier you compared this situation to a “Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.” In that case, both sides saved face by de-escalating. Is that the likely outcome here: another round of the Normandy talks or the Minsk agreements?
Richard Sakwa: There are rumors of a new summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, possibly as early as next week, which I welcome. And negotiations are important in all of this. In my opinion, it is 50-50. I don’t think people understood that we were lucky in October 1962 because we basically had reasonable leaders, particularly John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and back channels and so forth. I think there is almost none of that now and we are closer to a real conflict. The West and, of course, the British are interfering and pouring oil on the fire; the Germans, on the other hand, are not giving overflight permission for British troops and equipment to be flown into Ukraine.
I think it could go either way. The Russians can’t just pull out now without doing something, and the West is offering almost nothing. At least they are getting involved, which is good. They are making some smaller offers – also good. But it is not happening on the scale that is needed. The Russians are now saying that we have to go back to the Gorbachev agenda to create a European peace order.
They mentioned that each country can make its choice; but the other half of the peace order created in 1990 was that security is indivisible. The Russians are saying, “Guys, where is our security? We’ve been left out.”
Now we are closer to war. I don’t think that means an occupation of Ukraine. More likely it means long-range artillery strikes, airstrikes, etc., to try to weaken Ukrainian forces and get the West to negotiate seriously. So far they have only pretended, but there has to be some kind of explanation. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved by concessions so that both sides could save face. Today, we need not just face-saving, but substantive steps.
(The interview appeared on the U.S. platform Jacobinmag.com. The translation into German, approved by Jacobin, was provided by Christian Müller).
NATO General Stoltenberg – exposed as an ignoramus or liar
(cm) In the issue before the start of the Munich Security Conference, of all things, the German news magazine DER SPIEGEL published a report on the discovery of documents in the British National Archives from 1991, which unequivocally show that at that time there was consensus between East and West at the highest diplomatic level that NATO must not be expanded eastward. Headline: New file discovery supports Russian accusation.
Quote from SPIEGEL: “A few weeks ago, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appeared overconfident. Asked by SPIEGEL whether Russia had been promised in the 1990s that NATO would not expand eastward, the Norwegian stated firmly: ‘That’s simply not true, no such promise was ever made, there was never any such backroom deal. That is simply false.’ And further down in the SPIEGEL report, “As the document proves, however, the British, Americans, Germans and French agreed that NATO membership for the Eastern Europeans was ‘unacceptable’.” (The newly found document is pictured in SPIEGEL.)
This leads to the conclusion: either NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has no idea about the history of 1990/91, or he simply lied.
Richard Sakwa is a professor at the University of Kent UK and specializes in the politics of Russia and post-Soviet countries. He is the author of the book “Frontline Ukraine; Crisis in de Borderland”.