Ukrainian soldier in Irpin, near Kyiv© Kutsenko Volodymyr/Shutterstock

Ukrainian soldier in Irpin, near Kyiv© Kutsenko Volodymyr/Shutterstock

Putin's invasion is also the result of the fragile balance that has been created in Europe after 1989. According to Paul D'Anieri, author of "Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War", it was a "highway to war". Our interview

06/05/2022 -  Francesco Brusa

(Interview collected on April 22, 2022)

If read today, the last pages of “Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War” (Cambridge University Press, 2019) by Paul D’Anieri may appear almost prophetic. "Without reaching any agreement on the architecture of the European geopolitical order, we are left with mere competition [between different policies]", they read with reference to the Donbass conflict, the analysis of which gave birth to the book. "We want both Russia to be satisfied with what it has achieved and Ukraine to retain its territorial integrity. But it is not clear whether both of these goals can be achieved".

It took only a few years for this contradiction to explode: the large-scale invasion of Ukraine decided by Vladimir Putin last February definitively breaks what for three decades had in fact been a more precarious balance than it may appear. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War brought, together with naive illusions such as the "end of history", also new questions regarding international relations between powers, the role of military alliances on European territory, and the fate of the states born from the end of the Soviet and Yugoslav communisms. Today, we find ourselves facing all these questions with even more urgency than before and with greater uncertainty about the answers to be given. With the awareness, unfortunately, that those provided so far have proved wrong.

We talked about it with the author of the book and professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside, Paul D’Anieri.

Paul D’Anieri

Paul D’Anieri

Invasion of Ukraine by Russia, 2022. An inevitable war?

At the end of my book I concluded by saying that a war between Russia and Ukraine was certainly not "inevitable" (and I was talking about the 2014 war). But the same can be repeated today: war was not inevitable, until Putin decided to invade, but we had been on that road for a long time.

I really think this metaphor is meaningful: we were marching on a highway heading towards war, but the fact remains that there were many small exits that could still lead us to "something other than war". The problem is that taking any of these "exits" would have required at least one of the parties to be willing to make concessions. But this was not the case, because the reality is that each of the parties involved always expected the other side to make concessions.

Russia wanted Ukraine to accept its rule, just as it wanted the West to accept its "possibility of veto" implicit in European dynamics. The United States for its part wanted Russia to accept that it is no longer a great world power but simply a "normal nation" with its own established borders. And so on...

So, I would say that war was not inevitable but it was certainly a possible and indeed highly probable development since the end of the Cold War. This point should be emphasised: what we are witnessing did not begin with the eastward enlargement of NATO – although the eastward enlargement of NATO is certainly a factor – and did not begin with the 2013/14 Euromaidan which, on the contrary, we could consider it as a first spark of the Donbass war... It is a whole series of steps, one after the other, that have brought us this far. But it is clear that the ultimate and final decision is Putin's. We must recognise this: as much as we can criticise the policies of the United States, NATO, or even Ukraine, Russia is the one who has unilaterally decided to invade a neighbouring country.

Why were post-Cold War conditions so problematic?

So let's go back to 1991: in Europe the Soviet Union and communism collapse, which are two separate things. The Russian elites seemed to express the tendency to want to transform Russia into an entity resembling a liberal democracy; at the same time, however, Russia (understood as the former Soviet Union) had lost a considerable part of the territory under its control. I am not speaking only of the 14 former Soviet republics, but also of the entire "eastern bloc" under the Warsaw Pact.

From the very beginning, within Russia itself, there were those who accepted these changes and those who did not. During the 1990s the latter "faction" became more and more dominant in the internal balance of the nation. As I see it, looking back on history, we could indeed say that there was only a small window of time in which a small portion of the Russian elites truly accepted the independence of Ukraine. Even members of Yeltsin's government – who are generally considered "pro-Western" – basically argued that Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus should form a single bloc.

Let us look at the bigger picture now. The Cold War was over and the big question that arose was what geopolitical structure needed to be built in Europe. In theory, things could have been left the way they were. In fact, there are those who argued that NATO should be dismantled and that it no longer had any reason to exist. But, before this debate could go very far, there were two important events: the crisis in Yugoslavia, which showed the need for an interstate military alliance and which "revitalised" the role of NATO, and at the same time Russia's support for the Milosevic's Serbia which I consider to be Russia's greatest strategic and moral error. All this limited the potential consensus for a dismantling of NATO, or at least led many to believe that a containment body for Russia was needed.

At the same time, as I mentioned, other dynamics were in place inside Russia: let us not forget that in 1993 there was an attempted coup and this, in Western eyes, gave the impression that Russia could not become a complete democracy. And here is the question for Europe: if there had not been a democracy in Russia, at what point should the line be drawn between democracies and non-democracies? Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic therefore asked to join NATO and to join Europe. At that point, NATO and the European Union established themselves as the only credible "maintenance strategy" of democracy on European territory, postulating in fact a gradual expansion of European-style democratic institutions towards the east.

Except that NATO has expanded much faster, because it is much easier to join NATO than to implement democratic stabilisation reforms that require years of work. And this is what has happened, with a certain degree of success: we must acknowledge that the entry of the eastern states into NATO and then perhaps subsequently into the EU has certainly helped to consolidate regimes of liberal democracy on European territory, with various problematic examples, of course, including Poland and Hungary.

Were there no other paths to democracy?

In 1989, there were two different but somehow converging visions about Europe. On the one hand, US President George Bush who spoke of a "whole and free Europe"; on the other, Russian leader Gorbachev conceived Europe as a "common home". Two similar visions, but which certainly on the US side implicitly associated the word "democracy" with the term "liberal". Not necessarily an American conception, but also nuanced towards the concept of European social democracy. But Gorbachev's notion was certainly more pluralistic, since it also included a Soviet-style democracy with the Communist Party leading the nation.

During the 1990s, Russia began to become a very peculiar type of regime, certainly distant from the European concept of democracy: there are those who speak of "supervised democracy", etc.. When Putin came to power and began to twist the notion of democracy, the idea of being able to count on a "common home" or a single geopolitical space and democratic collaboration – in 1989 there was even talk of a "common home" running from Vancouver to Vladivostok – became highly problematic and no one actually believed in it anymore.

For his part, Putin perceived a major contradiction in Western politics that was not entirely far-fetched, it must be admitted: the West, and the United States in particular, insist on pluralism at the domestic level while at the international level they promote universal values. Putin and Xi Jinping are instead the opposite: they insist on pluralism at the international level, but at the domestic level they tolerate very little of it. In short, this is a radical tension that fuels divisions.

US policies towards Russia have changed a lot over time…

From the relations between Clinton and Yeltsin, to the "alliance" between George W. Bush and Putin in the "war on terror" to the attempts to reset Obama, it is true that US policies have changed over time. But there has always been a certain underlying coherence: all these leaders – including Trump – came to power with the conviction that they must have a positive relationship with Russia and, specifically, with the head of Russia. There is a famous speech by George W. Bush in which he says he looked Putin in the eyes and understood that the Russian leader wanted "what was good for his country", I am paraphrasing.

In short, whether it was Gorbachev, Yeltsin, or Putin, there was always the belief that at the head of Russia there was someone with whom we could do business. Nonetheless, our policies towards Russia have always been shaped in a way that – in times of heightened tension – US leaders tend to make decisions that they know are not decisions to be welcomed by Moscow: NATO enlargement, war in Iraq... All choices that have led to a deterioration in relations with Russia. Or the dissolution of the anti-ballistic missile treaty by George W. Bush, which certainly angered Putin.

Similarly, during the administration of Obama himself, who was staunchly devoted to the idea of implementing a "reset" of relations with Moscow, there was the choice to support the deposition of Mu'ammar Gaddafi and I believe that we do not realise how much the war in Libya was a source of fear for Putin. Or rather, some recognised it too much: John McCain at one point tweeted: "Mr. Putin, the Arab springs are coming for you". In short, all these choices, leaving aside the judgment on how ethically founded they could be, certainly contributed to a situation in which Putin had the perception that, in any case of disagreement, the United States would decide on its own. And that increased his resentment and frustration.

And what about Biden?

From a strategic point of view, although obviously we can debate on various points, I believe that the United States and Europe are doing well overall. Firstly, the choice to make intelligence information public in January and February proved smart, as it undermined the role of Russian propaganda and disinformation about what was happening and gave Ukraine a chance to prepare to a certain extent.

After that, I think we managed to find a good balance between not getting directly involved in the conflict and, at the same time, keeping in mind the importance of what is at stake. If Russia were to decisively win this war, it is clear that the future for Europe and for the West in general would be very uncertain and marked by permanent insecurity. In short, I do not think that doing nothing was really an option: let us think of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Italian wars in Africa, the Anschluss by the Nazis...

Obviously the historical parallels are to be taken with a grain of salt. But I think there are good reasons to believe that if Russia were to win, this war would not be the last (whether by Russia or by other nations). As for the United States, there is a substantial homogeneity of views on war at the moment in Congress. The right, represented in the media mainly by Fox News, is pro-Putin, but there is a part of the radical left that may not openly support the Russian leader but is quite compliant with him.

However, these are very unrepresentative positions. At the moment, the debate is not whether we are doing too much, but whether we are doing too little. I think that, especially after Bucha, there is a general consensus that Putin cannot be allowed to win this war even if, at the same time, there is an equally strong conviction that one does not want to unleash World War III. In short, a true dilemma.

Do you think there is no possibility for a negotiation?

Sooner or later, there will have to be a negotiation. I believe that at this moment we are not close, because the possibilities for a negotiation and the progress of the latter depend above all on what happens on the battlefield. The more one side prevails over the other, the less it will be willing to negotiate and the higher its demands will be. Historically, if I may simplify a little bit, negotiations can be completed either when one of the two armies has a clear advantage or when the conflict comes to a standstill so long that both sides start thinking that carrying on the war is no longer worth it.

But these situations can last a very long time: think of the war in Donbass, or the First World War itself. However, to hazard a prediction: if the Russian offensive in the east were not successful, and perhaps the lines of the advance would simply move a few kilometres, one could imagine that at that point both sides would have to negotiate. In that case, I believe that the most difficult issues we would have to deal with would be the neutrality of Ukraine (on which, however, Zelensky has already made concessions) but above all on the territories that Russia has conquered during this war. In particular, the question of Crimea could prove to be very problematic: from a strategic point of view, Crimea, together with the corridor that connects it to the Donbass, is very important for Russia. But at the same time Ukraine may want to reclaim it. My acquaintances in Ukraine tell me that, after Bucha, there is a lower propensity to negotiate and be accommodating.

A final element: part of the negotiations will probably concern the suspension of Western sanctions and this means that the West must play a role in the agreements. We must not forget this. Also with regard to military support and sending weapons to Ukraine: it is difficult to understand whether or not actions of this type are an obstacle to negotiations, it is really difficult to say at this moment which gestures can favour diplomatic action. Sure, we can say which cannot: Biden's reckless public statements.

Let us go back to 2014, a date that changed many things in relations between Europe, Ukraine, and Russia. How?

It is as if at that moment the European Union was overwhelmed by its own impetus for its enlargement. Once Romania, the Baltic republics, and Poland entered the EU, the question of what to do with one's "neighbourhood", not only Ukraine but also the Balkans, became pressing. A very "sensitive" and balance policy developed: on the one hand the entry of Ukraine was certainly not planned, but there was not a clear ban either. The problem was that with Ukraine we were putting ourselves in friction with Russian ambitions.

Therefore, in a "delicate" way in my view, it was decided to offer a commercial cooperation agreement. This geo-economic rivalry later became a geopolitical rivalry. While the European Union was very conciliatory in taking Russian demands and concerns into account, on the other hand it has been adamantly inflexible in holding firm to the principle that no country could veto any other nation's foreign policy decisions – in this case, therefore, Russia with Ukraine. On the other hand, this is one of the founding premises of the European Union.

Of course, such a "rivalry" existed even before 2014, but at that moment Putin felt confident because he saw Ukrainian President Yanukovych as an ally. The 2010 elections, among other things, were completely free and fair, but in a short time Yanukovich began to implement policies of strong centralisation of power, a bit modelled after Putin's authoritarianism. Now, the failure to sign the association agreement with the EU triggered the Euromaidan protests which were seen by Putin, in essence, as a "betrayal" of the West and from there he took the opportunity for the invasion of Crimea and the destabilisation of the Donbass.

In short, in 2014 there was a clash between Putin's perception that Russia is an imperial power that has every right to exert pressure on its sphere of influence and the European principle whereby no country can veto the decisions of a third country.

What was Europe's reaction in that context?

At that moment, Europe's top priority was to reach a ceasefire and then see what would happen next. An answer, I must say, in full European style aimed at dampening the conflict and averting an escalation, although this left the biggest controversies to be resolved later. On the contrary, I believe it was the best strategy to pursue. Perhaps having in place greater sanctions could have prevented this latest war, but the line adopted at the time was precisely to involve Russia in dialogue and attempts at negotiation.

The basic idea was: let's freeze the conflict – which never really froze, but almost – and hopefully something good will happen, maybe Putin is no longer in power, which clearly does not guarantee there would be the conditions for greater cooperation. On the other hand, however, Putin was also implementing a similar strategy: by keeping the conflict active, he was waiting for the sanctions to ease, perhaps also thanks to the election of leaders close to him in Europe. For him the situation was not bad at all: he managed to have Crimea and Donbass under his control, through which he could exert pressure on the Kyiv government but at the same time there was an open dialogue with the EU and the work carried on for North Stream 2.

Incidentally, these were the reasons why I was convinced that he would not attack. In the long run, the situation that had arisen in Ukraine would have favoured Russia.

In general, leaving aside Putin's final decision, what do you think are the greatest responsibilities of each "actor" in the field for favouring the start of this war?

Ukraine certainly bears the responsibility of failing to implement necessary reforms for its own security. I am not just talking about the military aspect, but also the economic one: it has never developed the stability necessary to be less vulnerable to Russian pressure. Furthermore, until 2014, its military capacity was very low, which is also one of the reasons why it used paramilitaries.

Germany, for its part, has adopted a strategy that has proved to be unsuccessful: the idea that buying Russian gas could reduce instability in Europe was, I think, a big mistake. Even the naivety, not to mention the open pro-Putinism, of some political forces in some states did not help. This is also true of the left, which has often paired the condemnation of US imperialism with a parallel compliance with that of Russia.

On the US side, I believe the biggest mistake was the war in Iraq. That decision, in addition to its injustice and the internal problems it created, also produced enormous damage to the reputation of the United States in the world and undermined respect for international law. This has also undermined our credibility towards the European Union.

Russia has simply never been able to accept the fact that Ukraine does not want to be part of Russia. And it would do better to accept it, because otherwise not only could there be wars like the one underway but even genocide. At the time of the tsars, the Ukrainian language was banned. Then there was the Holodomor under Stalin, which killed millions of Ukrainians, yet Ukraine still exists and wants to be independent. In short, in this sense, Russia risks devoting itself to a cause the only logical conclusion of which is the extermination of the Ukrainian people.

This war also reveals the impotence of international institutions such as the UN. What should be reformed on that level?

I think that, unfortunately, we are now very far from the possibility of rebalancing international relations and reforming the institutions that regulate them. The point is that in order to implement changes there must be a basic agreement, or at least a common idea, about the type of world we would like to create. And unfortunately I do not see any opening in this sense.

The West continues to see some of its values – democracy, freedom of expression, etc. – as something universal, while there are at least two major world powers along with smaller ones that do not agree. How to reconcile these two perspectives? From a realpolitik point of view, we can be content with the fact that there will be a geopolitical battle to find a balance between the West, Russia, and China. Perhaps this will lead to a new division into spheres of influence, but I am not sure anyone wants that.

In short, it is difficult to understand what the basis could be for collectively redesigning the world balance. Incidentally, this is precisely what Putin intends to express with the decision to start this war: he is telling us that the current rules do not work, they certainly do not work for him, and therefore he has decided to take what he can by force. And this could simply be the turn that the course of events will take and it goes without saying that it will hold nasty surprises for us.

I am afraid there is no possible happy ending in this story. Perhaps a silver lining is Ukraine's ability to resist invasion. But this will leave us in a world increasingly focused on conflict and power politics.

I commenti, nel limite del possibile, vengono vagliati dal nostro staff prima di essere resi pubblici. Il tempo necessario per questa operazione può essere variabile. Vai alla nostra policy

blog comments powered by