Editor’s note: This conversation between Fiona Hill and Angela Stent was moderated by Agneska Bloch and recorded in Washington, DC on July 28, 2022. It is part of the Talbott Papers, a series that assesses the broader implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
It is my pleasure to be joined today by two distinguished Russia experts, Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, to discuss the war in Ukraine.
Today, Fiona, Angela, and I will examine the war’s implications for Russia, the West, and the rest of the world. But we will begin with a discussion of history. And more specifically, the version of history that informs [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s actions and what this means for the months and years to come.
I would like to start by asking each of you to articulate what this war is about and what Ukraine means to Putin.
Well, thanks so much, Agneska. It’s always just a great pleasure to be not just with you, but with Angela. Collectively, Angela and I have been studying Russia for the best part of a century. So, history is also part of our own perceptions of this. And in fact, Vladimir Putin himself has made it very clear that this is about history and culture. And in his view, the right of Russia as an imperial power — he’s not even saying really as a former imperial power — to have to dominion over lands that once, or in his view, still currently belong in the sphere of influence.
So, Putin’s made a number of statements. Putin himself has explicitly said that Ukraine belongs to Russia. Ukraine is not a stand-alone, sovereign, independent country. Ukraine is a colony, not a former colony, but still a colony. He said that quite recently. And he’s also, of course, said in the last 10 years, that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. And what he meant by that was not the Soviet system, communism, or even the Soviet Union in its previous form during the Cold War, but really the Russian state.
For Putin, like many similar-minded people around him, the Soviet Union was a continuation of the Russian Empire in a different form with a different name. It didn’t include all the territory that had once belonged to the Russian Empire. And that, I think, is the important point to bear in mind here. Some of the territories of the Soviet Union that moved away from Russia after the collapse back in 1991, perhaps Putin doesn’t have the same kind of affinity with, for example.
But he’s made it very clear throughout this conflict, in fact, in the run up to this conflict, that this is all about his vision of what he sees to be the Russian world. And he wants to carry out, in terms of invading and attacking Ukraine, actions that will bring the Russian lands as he sees them, back into the fold.
So, if I can maybe continue on that. Putin has recently likened himself to Peter the Great who “gathered in the lands” after he defeated Sweden. We’re talking about the Baltic States. But in fact, I also see Putin in the tradition of Catherine the Great, whose portrait also adorns the Kremlin walls, as well as Peter’s. She famously said, “that which stops growing begins to rot. I have to expand my borders to keep my people safe.” So, the idea of defensive expansionism is something that’s very much written into Russian history of the last few centuries. And Putin, I think, sees himself as part of that tradition.
Now, interestingly enough, when he first came to power in 2000, he said anyone who doesn’t regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart and then he said, but anyone who wants to restore it has no head. But he has certainly moved beyond that. He doesn’t talk about restoring the Soviet Union, as Fiona said. But he certainly is likening himself more and more in the tradition of the imperial czars.
And the irony is [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov has just made a tour of Africa and made a speech saying, we aren’t tainted with the filth of colonialism that Britain, France, and all of these other countries are. The talk [is], “we were never a colonial power.” But, of course, Russia was a colonial power inasmuch as it conquered the peoples contiguous to it. It created the largest country on earth and subjected them to Russification. It didn’t want them to have their own traditions for a long time.
And then Lenin came along and changed that. And this is what Putin accuses Lenin of, creating a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. As Fiona said, the Bolsheviks didn’t want to appear that they were imperial. They wanted to say, we’re completely different from the czars. But in fact, they recreated the empire.
So, I think that sense of history is very much with him. And I think subjugating Ukraine is the most important piece of this for him because he clearly has articulated that Ukraine and Russia aren’t separate nations.
He published this 5,000-word essay in July of 2021 on that. But it’s by no means the last part of it. He’s talked about the potential restoration of a Slavic empire, which would include Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and possibly northern Kazakhstan, where a large number of Russians and Ukrainians live.
And so, this is, I think, what animates him now. He’s about to turn 70. He’s presumably thinking about his legacy. But then we really have to ask him, what kind of a legacy is he going to leave after this war is over?
From left to right: Portrait of Emperor Peter the Great (1672-1725), painted by Jean-Marc Nattier; portrait of Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796), painted by a follower of Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder; montage of illustration from a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, photograph by Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas.
I’d love to come back to many of the things that you just mentioned, Angela. Specifically, we’ll talk in a minute about Lavrov’s trip to Africa and the messaging of Putin and others in his inner circle towards the Global South.
But I want to follow-up with Fiona. One of the many narratives that we’ve heard over the past months is that this war is about NATO. Fiona, you argued in a New York Times piece that was published before the invasion in late January of 2022, that Putin, and I quote, “wants to evict the United States from Europe.” I’m wondering if this view has changed and how you see NATO, the United States, the West, maybe even democracy, figuring into Putin’s view of history.
Well, yes, I mean, this obviously is one of the major issues that has circulated around this conflict. Even Pope Francis has suggested that somehow perhaps Russia was provoked by the idea of NATO expansion. But what we have to think about here is the frame of reference, again, that Putin is bringing to the table. And this is where this idea of empire and the imperial state come in.
I mean, we have our own narratives about World War II. But part of the Russian narrative of World War II, of course, is that it was one of the great victor states, and that it also helped to liberate Europe. In many respects, Putin has seen the United States — and look, other parts of the world see the United States, as Angela was alluding to during Lavrov’s trip to Africa, in the way that he’s articulated there — see the United States also as an empire.
While we think that the United States together with the allies — Britain, and France, and Russia — liberated Europe, Putin also thinks that both World War I and World War II brought an alien power into Europe, in the form of the United States. Rather, as a liberator, America becomes a kind of alien imperial occupier.
Now, I’m sure that people will be confused by that. But look, if you go around Latin America, South America, parts of Africa, and Asia, the United States does appear like an imperial power. In fact, the United States has invaded plenty of countries.
It’s acquired all kinds of territory and has been engaged in imperial wars in the past — despite having been a colony of Britain — with France and Spain.
And so, if you start to play it out there, all this history from Putin’s perspective, he sees NATO as the military wing of an imperial United States. And of course, during the Cold War, with the ideological juxtaposition of the capitalist system, the socialist system, and the communist system, that also fed into the idea. The United States was often called the imperialist, Zionist, capitalist state.
Quite a mouthful because of also its support for Israel and the antipathy between the Soviet Union and Israel back then. That’s another dimension of this, a different story, of course, perhaps for another podcast.
But, you know, here you have Russia depicting the United States as being an occupying force.
And if we think back to December of 2021, it’s hard sometimes to think back to that point because of the carnage and all the events that have happened since. The United States was subjected to a number of demands along with NATO from Russia: Pull out of Europe, take all your bases and missiles with you, and also roll NATO back to what it was in 1997. As well as having Ukraine agree to no longer seek membership of NATO and to be neutralized.
Putin believes that Russia withdrew — under duress, it has to be said — from Europe at the end of the Cold War, but the United States didn’t. So, in his mind, the United States remains in some fashion an occupying force in Europe and NATO is just a U.S. instrument. Putin completely rejects the idea that other members of NATO who joined NATO did so of their own volition and for their own reasons and that they have any agency. So, he depicts — quite successfully outside of Europe and obviously outside of NATO countries — NATO as an instrument of American imperialism.
And now, I’m afraid a lot of people have fallen into that trap as well. Because Putin’s disinformation about all of this denies the fact that Poles, and Hungarians, and Czechs, you know, initially in the 1990s wanted to join for their own reasons. Baltic States obviously did. And a host of other countries at different points wanted to join. He basically denies the fact that they wanted to join something. He essentially depicts this image of something else inexorably expanding and enlarging at everybody else’s expense.
Now, I think the kicker here, and of course, the piece that you quoted I wrote long before this — is the decision of Sweden and Finland to join NATO. And I’m sure Angela would have something to say about this as well, because Sweden just overturned 200 years of neutrality. And Finland, of course, wanted to have the option of joining NATO, but never really actually wanted to exercise that option until now.
And as they have articulated very clearly, they saw the changed circumstances as very detrimental to them. They wanted to join an organization to build something for the future for European security, but also primarily for their own defense and deterrence of Russian aggression.
Angela, is there anything else that you’d like to add on this topic of [the] battle between different narratives of the role of the West and the role of Russia in the world order?
I think the essential thing here, and I would say this is mirror imaging, because if we look back at the Soviet Union during the Cold War, of course, it completely dominated the Warsaw Pact.
If we look at any alliance structure, even the Collective Security Treaty Organization that exists, or the Eurasian Economic Union, this is still something dominated by Russia. And so, Putin depicts the United States as exactly the same. The idea that the Poles, and the Czechs, and the Baltic states, and Hungary would have voluntarily wanted to join NATO is something that maybe on some level the Kremlin understands, but they would never admit that.
They have to depict the U.S. very much in the terms that they in fact act, which is as forcing its reluctant European allies to accept American hegemony. And I think during this war, they have sharpened this narrative. Because it’s clear that the U.S. is, of course, supplying the lion share of weapons and things like that to Ukraine. Europeans are as well, but they don’t have the wherewithal to do all of that.
And so, I think that they’ve been reinforcing this narrative now. And that’s what they want the rest of the world to believe. If you read what the Chinese write or listen to what they’re saying about this, they’re all parroting that, including the Indians, by the way.
I’d like to pick up on this idea that this narrative has been reinforced, and kind of press you on how long it can last and how long this narrative will work.
Ukraine is usually the fourth largest grain exporter in the world, but since the beginning of the war, Ukrainian grain has been blocked in Black Sea ports contributing to the global food crisis. Will there come a point when countries in the Global South will feel compelled to take a different approach to Russia because of the pain the war is causing them at home? I’m wondering also if this is why Putin seemed to make an agreement to unblock Ukrainian ports to allow the export of grain. In other words, are we seeing the limits of Russia’s strategy of blaming the West for disruptions that they are causing today?
I think one of the reasons why the Russians entered into this agreement — and let’s see if it works, we don’t have any ships yet that have been able to get out from Odesa and get the grain to where it’s really needed — I think one of the reasons was even though much of the Global South is susceptible to this idea that it’s the West’s fault, that this [food shortage] is all happening. The head of the African Union visited Mr. Putin in Sochi and that’s what he was told. They’re susceptible to it. But on the other hand, there are other narratives there and I think the Russians have to be very careful that the tide doesn’t turn. I don’t know if we’ve reached the limits of it yet.
If you look at many African countries, countries in the Middle East — Latin America, which is having more and more left-wing governments now being elected — [there’s] this kind of suspicion of the United States, with seeing the United States, if you like, as a world bully, which was a phrase that the Americans talked about when they talked about the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But that [suspicion], I think, has very deep roots. And the other side of that is for countries in Africa, particularly, but [also] others, they see Russia as the heir to the Soviet Union, who supported them during the national liberation struggles, right?
South Africa, anti-apartheid, the African National Congress was supported by the Soviet Union. People trained there. Fiona and I have both been at the Valdai Conference when [South African President] Thabo Mbeki sat on the stage with Putin and they embraced each other and, you know, they’re comrades. They look upon Putin as part of these comrades in arms, not realizing this isn’t the Soviet Union. And we don’t know whether [Russia] would support these kinds of movements anymore. But that runs very deep. So, I don’t think you’re going to — this is not going to change that quickly.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) chats with South African President Thabo Mbeki during the group photo of G8 leaders with African nation leaders, on the final day of the G8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia, United States, June 10, 2004. (JAPAN POOL REUTERS/Eriko Sugita MMR/GN)
Is there anything that could change in Russia that would change this perception that there is in Latin America, in Africa, across the Middle East?
I think it’s actually incumbent on us to really try to find ways of pushing back on these narratives. I mean, it is pure disinformation. As Angela said, this is not the Soviet Union of the past. Putin doesn’t come out of that same kind of tradition. He’s never served in Africa, or Asia, or Latin America, for example, when he was in the KGB.
His focus was always on Europe. He knows how to manipulate Europe. I mean, interestingly, his narratives are not getting as much traction as they used to in Europe. So, really the difficulty that we have now is what Angela calls in a book that she’s written relatively recently the West and the rest of the world. And that’s why we have to really concentrate. We have to also accept that we’re not necessarily ourselves the best messengers, meaning the United States, or the United Kingdom, or France, for example: the old colonial powers were the old empires that were active in Africa. Or more broadly in Asia as well. I mean, we do have quite a lot of baggage to overcome there.
So, we’re going to have to figure out how we work with other powers within Europe and the Ukrainians to articulate a very clear message here.
Now, on grain, I think it’s actually worth bearing in mind, as you’ve said, Agneska, very clearly that Ukraine was a major grain producer, but so is Russia. Russia was one of the dominant [producers] and so is northern Kazakhstan, of course. Angela mentioned that northern Kazakhstan is seen by Russia as part of its orbit. northern Kazakhstan, as Angela said, was settled by Slavs, Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians as part of the Virgin Lands expansion of agriculture in the Soviet period after World War II.
And if Putin restored control over grain production and exports, and also its fertilizer, potash — salt fertilizer, for example — and other food oils like sunflower oil, which Ukraine is actually the largest producer of, then Russia would also have an enormous amount of leverage.
And as we know, from energy manipulation with gas in Europe and also oil elsewhere, these precious commodities, I mean, food is the most intrinsic important element for human beings writ large. And if you think back to antiquity, most wars ended up with some kind of destruction of crops, agriculture, food, and stores to, in fact, induce famine. It was a way of getting populations to surrender. Putin knows that himself because his own family went through the siege of Leningrad during World War II where food supplies to Leningrad were cut off. And members of his own family almost starved to death in the case of his mother and did starve to death and die of disease in the case of his older brother. And so, Putin knows this. He’s manipulating this. And I think people have to get into their perspective: [that of] African elites and leaders, as well. I mean that they themselves don’t want to create more dependency on a hegemon, an imperial hegemon when it comes something as vital as food and food supplies. They are only increasing their vulnerability to Russia and the manipulation of all these commodity markets. Again, I don’t think we’re necessarily the best messengers for this. And so, I think that we have to be very creative and think very carefully about our public diplomacy and how we conduct this.
Just maybe one thing to add. [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy for a long time was trying to meet with the African Union countries to explain the Ukrainian position to them. When he finally got a meeting with them, I think four of them showed up. So, there’s obviously many African countries that have bought this kind of Russian line that somehow the Ukrainians are at fault, that they’re somehow inferior, and they wouldn’t even bother to meet with him. So, I think that’s an indication of how strong these narratives still are, particularly in Africa.
And I do think it’s also the kind of perception of a lot of countries that they’ve become trapped in other people’s narratives. And that when we talk about approaches, we usually do them from the Western perspective. And so, if we’re going to have a multilateral approach or a multinational approach, doing what was done with the United Nations framing the agreement for Ukrainian grain along with the Turks was pretty critical. But I think other countries want to have a say in everything. They don’t want to be forced to choose sides in this. They don’t want to be, you know, pushed one way or another and they don’t want to find themselves trapped between, you know, kind of these great power clashes as they were in the past.
And certainly, I think you find that a lot of other countries are kind of systems neutral although they’re kind of buying the old narratives from the Cold War again. But they don’t see these bright, shining lines that there kind of used to be between ideologies or systems. And if Russia’s coming forward with things to offer just like China is, and the United States doesn’t seem to be having much of a policy or much traction in their region, they are asking themselves why should we be so supportive? So, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to actually help Russia actively in terms of breaking sanctions or in the war, obviously, you know, they’re not really in a place to do that. But they don’t necessarily then want to be taking very strong diplomatic action either.
Fiona, I want to press you a little bit on how you’re describing that we’re not the best messengers to fight back against the information and the narratives that Putin and others are pushing across the Global South. And you said that we should be creative in finding ways to help others perhaps push this message. Can you elaborate a little bit on what you could imagine and could recommend?
Yeah, I mean, it’s really like collective, strategic diplomacy; public diplomacy. I mean, we already have a lot of bilateral interactions and some multilateral fora like the United Nations and the General Assembly where we’ve been working. But I think, you know, sometimes we might want to let others get out there with the actual message while we’re providing support for them.
So, the Poles, for example, who have been partitioned and subject to so much imperial machination, including by Russia. The Poles see this as intrinsic for them, vital for them. And they’ve been trying to help the Ukrainians with their messaging. The Balts, for example, the Finns, having now wanted to join NATO, and how they articulate why. I think they’ve been very effective, at least in the European context of explaining why.
You have South Korea and Japan. Now, Japan, obviously, has its own imperial legacy in Asia but not so much in Africa. And both South Korea and Japan have these longstanding traditions of development assistance. They are well-regarded in many developing countries. And so, if they’re able to articulate that now [on] food and issues related to food, trade, [and] climate change, which of course, is all intertwined because we’re already worrying about what climate change impacts will be on food stocks.
And here’s Russia now exacerbating all of this. If those are all tied together as a national security issue, not just as a development issue, and we have some of our other partners. Australia, as a major grain producer, for example has also been a great source of development assistance. Getting together a consortium of other countries, both to help frame and support the United Nations on the grain exports from Ukraine, but also getting the messaging out to the rest of the world that we really need to take this seriously. That we need to pull together for, you know, kind of the greater good here. I mean, that’s a hackneyed phrase, of course. But this is really vital. And I think that, you know, if Putin thinks that he can control grain flows just like he can turn the gas tap on and off to Europe, everyone’s in a whole host of trouble.
Yeah, he’s weaponizing both grain now and energy. And he, even though we can argue about how well Russia is doing in this war, he certainly has a lot of cards at the moment just because of the blocking of the Ukrainian ports and because, you know, Russia was until recently an energy superpower. And, the Europeans are worried about freezing in the winter.
A wheat field which is scheduled to be reaped in three weeks is pictured in Kyiv Oblast on June 30, 2022. Wheats will be stored in a warehouse as exporting is difficult due to the blockade of the Black Sea by Russia. (The Yomiuri Shimbun)
Fiona, I want to come back [to you]. You mentioned a few countries in Russia’s neighborhood. You mentioned Poland, you mentioned the Balts. How are these other countries around Russia in its neighborhood, like Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, making sense of the invasion of Ukraine and especially thinking about how it might relate to their own future sovereignty and security?
Well, I think for a lot of those countries, it’s starkly evident that this affects them directly. Belarus, you know, we keep forgetting that Belarus is being practically absorbed by Russia at this point. And in fact, when I was in government, rolling back the clock a couple of years ago, all our briefings were really on Belarus as being the most vulnerable point of weakness. And we seem to have not even noticed. Because Belarus is now being used as this launching pad for the invasion in Ukraine [so] that, to all intents and purposes, Belarus is completely and utterly under the thumb of Russia. Now, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, doesn’t really want to be and he’s trying to kind of wiggle his way out. But it’s almost a game over for Belarus, even though there’s opposition there and some different thinking behind the scenes.
Moldova is extraordinary. I am worried, because at one point, President Lukashenko of Belarus had a bizarre press conference in which he had a map of the conflict and he pointed to Moldova as if, you know, Moldova is next. And, in fact, when we see the movement of the Russian military offensive, of course, the shelling of Odesa, and we see what they did back in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea when there was an attempt to spark up rebellions and insurgency against the central government in Ukraine, Odesa and the whole southern part of Ukraine along the Black Sea was also targeted, not just Donbas and areas around the Sea of Azov. And it looked like they were trying to kind of create a contiguous land bridge to Moldova. Angela can talk more about that as well, because it fits into history and to empire. Bessarabia, which incorporated some of modern-day Moldova, was another of the parts that were partitioned and part of it was taken into the Russian Empire.
So, all the countries that have been incorporated at one point into the Russian Empire are deeply worried because of the way that, you know, we said earlier that Russia and Putin have been speaking. And, of course, in the case of Georgia, they were already invaded. We’ve forgotten — again — that Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. And there’s still a lot of questions. Georgia’s been sort of marginalized in all of this.
Russia intervened in Kazakhstan, albeit at the request of the Kazakh president, President [Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev, after protests and what looked like a lot of inter-elite conflict there. Armenia has been recently again in a war with Azerbaijan, in which Russia seemed to have stoked the flames. And then [Russia] intervened and now has peacekeepers on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, which both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been trying to avoid for best part of 30 odd years. We’re continuously seeing moves behind the scenes by Russia to make sure that all of the immediate neighbors know that Russia calls the shots, or at least to make them think that they do.
I think the Kazakh case is very interesting because, as Fiona said, Russian troops did intervene to help President Tokayev stay in power when the Nazarbayev Clan [the family of the previous president of Kazakhstan] wanted to try and get rid of him. But he has been singularly independent. I mean, he sat on the stage with President Putin at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and he said, we’re not going to recognize the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, the two so-called independent republics there. Just as we didn’t recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And, you know, he has been quite critical of what’s happening. The Kazakhs refused to send soldiers to Ukraine.
I mean, one of the things is — and I think the same was true with Armenia — the Russians tried to get some of these other countries to send troops and they refused to. And then the Russians retaliated by cutting off Kazakhstan’s access — because, of course, it’s a landlocked country — to export its oil from the Caspian consortium there.
But what’s fascinating in Kazakhstan and it may be happening in other countries, is that younger Kazakhs particularly, to get back to the question about colonialism and imperialism, they’re now saying, hey, we were the victims of Russian colonialism. [Russia] tried to suppress — you know, there wasn’t a Kazakh nation, but there were different ethnic groups or tribes that were part of this. And they’ve been trying to suppress our own history.
And so, again, what Putin is doing in Ukraine I think is sparking this kind of questioning in a number of these post-Soviet countries about their own victimhood to Russian colonialism. I think that could spell trouble for Russia in the future too.
I think that’s right. And another thing that’s happening is that Russians who do not want to be part of this are fleeing in droves to all these countries Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia.
Initially, of course, Ukrainians were fleeing to places like Moldova, as well, on their way out further afield in Europe. So, this is having all kinds of knock-on effects, and they’re not always going to be positive of Vladmir Putin.
I want you to both put your policy hats on for a second and ask – I want to talk a little bit about the response of the U.S. and Europe. How would you address the argument, which is being made across the political spectrum on both sides of the Atlantic, and by Sam Charap and our Brookings colleague, Jeremy Shapiro, in the New York Times, that the United States should open channels of diplomatic communication with Russia with the aim of achieving a cease-fire? I want to start with Angela on that one.
Well, first of all, it takes two to tango. And we don’t really have any evidence that President Putin and the people around in the Kremlin have any interest in opening such channels. We do hear today, as we said, July 28th, that there will be a discussion between Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov about a prisoner exchange with Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan on the one hand and presumably Viktor Bout in the United States. I mean, they haven’t been completely clear that it’s [him]. But there is some discussion going on.
But the idea that the Russians want to sit down and discuss a diplomatic solution is just way off because — Lavrov has said this, other Russian officials have said this — the time for negotiation is over. They had these negotiations in March and early April but because of what the West has done, it’s over now. So, of course, there’s nothing wrong in engaging in diplomatic channels. But if you look, who has tried to engage with Putin? Both [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron and [German] Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz and the Austrian chancellor, some other European leaders, but particularly those two. They’ve gotten nowhere. And they themselves have said that they sit there and they listen to a narrative, which they’ve heard many times before.
And I think the idea that somehow this is going to solve anything at the moment, it belies the real reality on the ground, which is that Putin hasn’t given up yet. You know, the Russians have said that obviously they’re trying to take the whole of the Donbas now. But they haven’t given up other aims. Possibly going back to Kyiv, taking other parts of Ukraine too.
The idea that somehow the United States and its allies are fanning the flames by providing weapons, I think it belies a reality. It’s true, if the West wasn’t supplying weapons, Ukraine probably would by now already have been defeated. But the Russians have made it clear that what they want — and again, they said this — is the capitulation of Ukraine and its surrender. And I’m not sure that that is the basis for a diplomatic negotiation when Ukraine isn’t losing at the moment.
G-7 Summit participants sit at the working session, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is connected via video conference. (REUTERS / Michael Kappeler/dpa)
And let me just add to this. I mean, it’s even the framing of this, right? It’s something that the U.S. government itself, this administration said they don’t want to do, they do not want to be negotiating away Ukraine without considering what the Ukrainians want. And even if then, they should not be in the place to negotiate Ukraine’s future with Russia, Ukraine should be.
They have repeatedly said the only thing that they possible can say, which is: we writ large are trying to provide Ukraine with the best possible negotiating position. Because what Putin wants — and I mean, this is what Angela and I are both saying — is very evident. To strip Ukraine of all agency, by first of all, saying it’s a proxy war that, you know, this becomes the Flanders killing fields of World War I.
Ukraine is nothing but a place for trench warfare in a war between the West and Russia. That’s what Russia is basically saying. So, Ukraine is collateral damage.
And in fact, Russians would say that to Ukrainians at the very beginning of the war. We’re sorry this is happening to you. This is between us and the West. When, in actual fact, the Ukrainians are very clear — it’s between us and you. You invaded us and you’ve basically said Ukraine shouldn’t exist. This is a war for liberation of Ukraine after a brutal invasion. What Putin wants us to do is to think that the stakes are too high for everybody and that we should capitulate, as Angela said, and we should negotiate away Ukraine. And, I mean, basically Putin is framing this in a 19th and 20th century way. So, what this is, is really an effort to partition Poland again.
This is why the Poles are out there and the Finns are also out there now trying to help the Ukrainians. Because back in previous wars, the great powers got together and divided countries up. And this is basically what Putin’s saying. Here, come on, let’s go and divide up Ukraine.
In fact, if we go back in time to just after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, just after that, and I guess it would be February of 2015, there was a Munich Security Conference. And there were many Ukrainian leaders there and [Russian] Foreign Minister Lavrov, Sergey Lavrov — I mean, remember in Russia most people just don’t change positions. They’re all there in place indefinitely like Putin is. Lavrov pretty much encouraged the audience to carve up Ukraine.
He said Ukraine isn’t a real country. It’s a mishmash of Ukrainians, and Russians, and Poles, and Romanians, and Hungarians. And it was basically “have at it,” and Slovaks as well. And everybody in the audience was taken aback. It’s a rerun of earlier imperial history.
So, what Putin wants more than anything else is the big boys to sit down at the table. He loves Scholz and Macron and everybody, you know, running to see them because he denies that the Ukrainians have any role. And the same thing happened after the invasion of Georgia. The Russians refused to treat the Georgians any differently from the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians and others.
And Armenia and Azerbaijan, they wanted to have equivalency with the Nagorno-Karabakh separatists. Russia always denies what is the object of its ire: any kind of sovereignty. Again, calling Ukraine a colony. It’s basically now saying it’s a colony of the United States.
I myself, back in 2019, had a rather bizarre experience when I was in government where the Russians proposed a swap for Ukraine and Venezuela. Suggesting that as Venezuela — we were having a crisis with Venezuela, at the time after Nicolas Maduro was, you know, basically trying to stay in power indefinitely — that if we pulled out of Ukraine, they would pull out of Venezuela where they’d sent in some security people to help prop up Maduro. And it just reinforced the way that they think. And we should not play into that way of thinking.
Yeah, and similarly Radislav Sikorski says that when he was foreign minister of Poland, they suggested to him, why don’t we partition. You take the western part of Ukraine, which used to be part of Poland, of course, before or at some point was anyway before World War II in the interwar years, and we’ll take the eastern part. Because Putin always comes back to Yalta. Putin has repeatedly said, you know, the Yalta system was very good. It kept the peace. And so, again, you divide the world up. In that case between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now it would be a tripartite one with China.
That is his vision. It’s a 19th century vision of, this is our sphere of [where] I would take control now. It’s no longer a sphere of influence. That’s what he wants. And then the other great powers have their own sphere. That’s what he’s aiming for.
Can you say more about the difference between a sphere of influence and a sphere of control?
Sure. In a sphere of influence, I go back to the analogy of post-war Eastern Europe. So, a sphere of influence would be where the governments say you have a government in Ukraine that was more or less freely elected, but understood that, you know, its foreign policy had to be oriented towards Moscow, that it would give up any attempts to join either the European Union — of course, now it does have an official counted membership — or NATO. But domestically, you know, it would be somewhat different from Russia.
But I think by now we’re in a sphere of control, which is what the Russians want: a government in Ukraine that is pro-Russian and, you know, and where no pro-Western candidate would really ever win. So, the foreign policy. And then domestically, having everything oriented again, toward Russia excepting that Russia has a droit de regard over this region but not seeking any further integration with the West. And that’s what the Russians have said.
I think that’s where we are now. So, we talk about Putin, the idea of spheres of influence, but Putin’s gone beyond that already with what he’s doing in Ukraine and Belarus. I mean, Belarus [is] really being controlled by Russia now.
And it’s not just the West either is it really? It’s because of just Ukraine having any kind of independence or autonomy. I mean, it’s basically now Ukraine would be just a subsidiary of Russia. Which is where, you know, Belarus was headed.
Look, in the period of around 2014 when Armenia was also trying to secure an association agreement with Europe, the Russians told the Armenians, we own you. Don’t even think about it.
Ukraine was already on the track of moving away. But Armenia was incredibly dependent on Russia for security protection, because of the whole war with Azerbaijan and the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and also [they] had a Russian base there. And Armenia’s economy was completely dependent on remittances from Armenians living and working in Russia. And the Russians literally said to them, we own you. Don’t even think about moving in that direction because they wanted Ukraine as well as Armenia. And what Angela mentioned before, the Eurasian Economic Union. So, in a way, Putin is a monopolist, you know, if we want to think of it in that regard. And he doesn’t want anybody franchising themselves off in a different direction.
What should the U.S. and Europe be doing that they’re not doing today in the context of responding to this war if it’s not negotiating, which I have understood you to be saying buys into a lot of what Putin wants? Is there anything else? Also, because you were saying we’re not the right messengers for countering the information war and the narrative.
I think not negotiating is perhaps maybe too starkly put because, I mean, we do need to have ways of engaging with Russia. Every time you say words like this, one has a negative connotation, or some have a positive connotation. But we’re kind of stuck with the words that we have, right? Negotiation, as Angela is basically saying, implies that we actually have something there that we can talk about and we can compromise on and Russia doesn’t want to compromise.
But in terms of some kind of engagement, it doesn’t mean a positive kind of engagement. We’ve got to figure out where we are with all of this. So, we can’t like basically cut off all channels of connection with Russia. We need to have deconfliction. We need to kind of create some degrees of restraint. There is actually quite a bit of restraint still going on in this conflict. This could be far worse than it already is. It looks terrible enough, but just to be clear, there is some restraint going on here because I don’t think that Russia really wants a full-on war with NATO. They’ve been avoiding that the entire way. They much prefer to do things by covert action. We have to remember we have actually had a shooting exchange with the Russians in Deir al-Zour Province in Syria in 2018, when covert operatives from their paramilitary organization that goes under the rubric of the so-called bargaining group shot at American special forces. And we had very clear lines of engagement and we said to them, if you shoot, we will shoot back. Now, the uniformed regular military didn’t do that.
But, you know, the Russians are always trying to find how far can they go without getting some kind of major response. Now, they are getting [a] response from us because we’re supporting Ukraine in this defensive effort and this is driving Russia nuts. But we still have to keep these channels going behind the scenes because again, as the administration is saying quite rightly, if Ukraine wants to enter into a negotiation with Russia, then we have to give them the best possible negotiating position.
What we have to do is — I mean, we’ve all talked about this — retain our unity. And trying to expand the group of countries that are being supportive of Ukraine and are calling Russia out. I mean, I really do think that at some point if Russia started to find that some of their critical bilateral relationships with the rest of the world were being negatively affected by this, then there might be some change. And we have to be able to constrain Russia’s ability. I think we have to be careful about how we talk about that. That’s the idea of [the American diplomat and historian] George Kennan in fact, during the Cold War: How do you constrain Russia from doing some of the things that it does? You know, how do you head them off at the pass on all kinds of ways in which they can exploit things, on grain, on energy, you know, our own systems, the way that they have done up until now.
I agree completely. I think, yes, we have to maintain some kind of communication with Russia, but we really do have to maintain Western unity. But we’ve seen an example of this where, at the beginning of the war, the Israelis were very wary of criticizing Russia or doing anything because Israel really depends on a relationship with Russia, a deconfliction arrangement so that when it’s attacked by Hezbollah, it can strike back, and [so] that the Russians sort of intervene in a way that enables Israel to do that.
But I think after lengthy discussions with the United States, the Israelis realized that they couldn’t maintain completely a position of neutrality. So, even if they haven’t joined the sanctions, what they’ve said and some of the things they’ve done have really irked the Russians and now we see Russia cracking down on, for instance, the Jewish Agency, which is the agency which, you know, in Russia — well, all over the world — but in Russia too, [people contact if they] want to emigrate [to Israel]. The Russians are not happy that so many people have emigrated there, particularly people with high tech skills. They’re really clamping down and they’re threatening the Israelis. There’s a delegation going there, I think, as we speak to try and work this out.
But that is an example of a country that is a strong ally of the United States and of many European countries. And where even taking a somewhat more critical stance towards Russia than the Russians liked has met with a response from the Russians that the Israelis see [as] potentially threatening their own security.
I think that’s actually one of the things that we need to do. We need to factor in all our other partners’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities and try to figure out how we address them with them. I mean, I think that that’s one of the reasons why the rest of the world — it feels like they really don’t want to commit here or to really do anything. Because are we going to have their backs? Are we going to help them? I mean, we haven’t got a great track record of doing that. Everyone is basically asking here, not just what is in it for us? But are you going to help us, actively, if something goes wrong? The United States has been incredibly supportive of Israel and we’ve got these very close relations. But are we addressing this? Are we trying to help them [to] think this through? We should be. And that’s kind of a larger pattern. Japan, South Korea, you know, many of our other allies and partners, we need to be working very closely with them consulting and trying to figure out how we all work together.
And not have them subject to Russian intimidation because the Russians are very good at this, you know. Putin is a [former] KGB case officer and intimidation is the name of the game. And they’re playing that quite successfully at the moment.
What the Russians are doing to the Israelis, they’ve also done in a similar fashion to the Finns. Finland had a lot of intermarriage. And Finland is a place where a lot of Russians have gone. Not in the same way that they’ve gone to Israel, of course. But they’ve also played with the same kinds of things. You know, going after Finnish-Russian mixed marriages and the children and laying claim to the children of those marriages. Making it difficult for Finnish government bodies to act across the border, accusing the Finns of stirring up the Finno-Ugric populations inside of Russia itself. These kinds of tactics that they’ve now adopted and turned on the Israelis, this is a classic form. What we need to do is stand in solidarity with everyone and call it out. Say, look, this is what they do every single time. And it’s, if we get picked off, the divide and conquer, then this is exactly where our vulnerabilities and weakness will be.
I think we only have time for one last question. And I want to ask, how does this end for Ukraine, for Russia, for the rest of the world? I’m going to start with Angela.
It doesn’t end very soon. You know, you might have the possibility by the end of the year of some kind of a pause. I mean, Russia has a manpower shortage. The Wagner Group that Fiona already mentioned has apparently been recruiting people from prisons to join the fight. The Ukrainians also have a manpower problem. They don’t have infinite numbers of people who can serve in the military. And both sides are losing, you know, the casualty and the death rate is very high.
So, you could have a pause, maybe a cease-fire. But that would only be temporary. Because unless Putin is willing to redefine what he means by victory, and we haven’t seen any of that yet, he will want to continue fighting. The onus will really be to maintain Western solidarity and unity. It’s going to be, as I mentioned before, much more difficult for the Europeans, particularly for the Germans, for instance. This winter, if they’re freezing, if they’re not getting the Russian gas, if they don’t have enough alternative sources of energy, they’re going to say, well, maybe — and there are people arguing that already in Germany — we should take a different tactic because maybe then the Russians will come back and give us more gas. So, this could be a very long, drawn-out conflict. It’s very hard to see, I mean, we don’t know what the definition of winning is for the Ukrainians. Officially, President Zelenskyy and his colleagues there have said it means taking back all the territory from the Russians including eventually the whole of the Donbas and one day maybe Crimea. I think that’s not on the cards. But I think even to get the Russians to withdraw to where they were on February 23 , the day before the invasion, is going to be very difficult.
So, it could be a stalemate. It could be more of a frozen conflict. It’s obviously not a frozen conflict now. It’s a very hot conflict. That might be one outcome further down the road. But it’s very hard to see this ending anytime soon.
I agree with that. And I think that what we have to be very mindful about is not being tempted to [enter] into negotiations when there is [a] pause in the action. That would then just create the space for Russia to regroup and press ahead again, because we’ve seen this over and over again. Since 2014, there’ve been all these agreements, negotiated agreements in the Donbas region, Minsk I, Minsk II. There seem to be endless Minsk agreements that shaped Ukraine’s past, present, and probably its future as well.
And none of those have particularly held. And if we look at other conflicts in the region, in the case of Chechnya, for example, inside of Russia itself in the 1990s, there was the Khasavyurt Accord. I personally worked on it in 1997. It was all, it was just a truce. It became somewhat meaningless because the Russians didn’t want to compromise and they were just waiting to regroup to then press forward with the original sets of goals.
The Ukrainian government has set up a task force, I guess one could call it, to kind of think about security guarantees for Ukraine to figure out how to prevent further outbreaks of war. We saw in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, of course, you had a ceasefire back in 1994, and then continuous outbreaks of conflict resulting in a war again in 2020 and a complete change of things on the ground. We can’t think that that’s resolved either, unless you have all kinds of other mechanisms put in place. So, I think we have to bear that in mind and think about, what mechanisms can we put together? And how can we ensure that if there is actually some [deal], even if it’s a truce, how could we make it something permanent and not temporary? And not fall into thinking that there will be some compromise that will always resolve everything. I mean, we still have people who will say, well, this war could have been ended if we’d neutralized Ukraine and basically persuaded Ukraine to give up on its NATO accession. But I would argue that there would always have been something where Ukraine would have been accused by the Russians of overstepping the bounds. Because if we go back to the immediate period after Ukraine got independence, they were already in the crosshairs of Russian nationalists, putting pressure on Ukraine over a whole variety of issues before NATO or anything else was even on the cards there. So, there’s a long history over the last 30 years of pressure being exerted on Ukraine and very clear goals of bringing Ukraine back into the fold. And we have to address that and not be deluded into thinking that there’s one fix for all of this.
Interview preparation: Lucy Seavey and Jonathan Hogan
Editorial: Alex Dimsdale
Web layout: Rachel Slattery