Ukraine's accession to NATO will cause a crisis in Russia. The Alliance's official refusal can cause a crisis in Ukraine
Is Ukraine really facing an invasion by the Russian army? Why does Russia want NATO to officially forsake Ukraine? How is Russia's aggression of 2014 different from today's? How is the nature of the conflict changing and why can cyberattacks be more dangerous than military action?
These and other questions are answered by the director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies Olexander Bohomolov in an interview with the head of the Center for Middle East Studies Ihor Semyvolos.
I.S.: The Spanish El País has published the official US / NATO response to Russia's demands. There was a leak of information, most likely due to the efforts of the Russians. Moscow is now continuing to escalate and is showing that it is ready for aggressive action. Is Russia continuing its bluff or is it ready for a real escalation of the conflict?
O.B.: "Russian aggression 2.0." is how I call what's happening right now. The first phase happened in 2014 and lasted until recently. Russia is now taking a new approach. Part of this aggression is an escalation or an imitation thereof. But this is only one of the instruments of pressure by Russia.
This qualitatively new stage is more complex and, obviously, much more well thought out than the aggression in 2014. Russia has spent time studying errors and programming a new approach, some elements of which we are already witnessing. But we must wait to see the continuation.
We must expect that this military-political operation will last a long time. The position of Ukraine and our partners is as follows: "Now there is a problem, we will do something with it and solve it." But the Russian plan, I think, is quite different. After all, like the military operation that has been going on since 2014, Russia's current strategy is aimed at exhausting the opponent.
Russia is attacking Ukraine on different levels, the Western allies may not see this
Russia is acting at several levels. Most notably, it uses diplomatic and military components, but also other available means, such as the cyber attack and the incident around the Russian consulate in Lviv. Russia uses such situations for so-called operations under a false flag. The Russian Federation has used similar provocations in the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) zone before, but now it is demonstrating that it can carry out these operations on a much larger scale.
For example, according to our observations, the recent cyber attack on more than 20 Ukrainian resources affected only the interface, not the data stored there. So, with this attack, Russia is only demonstrating what it is capable of.
Serious cyberattacks happen on quite a different scale. Attacks on key infrastructure are more dangerous. Russia also has "energy weapons", but so far it has not even demonstrated this lever. Russia may affect electricity supplies, for example, from Belarus. It is dangerous for Ukraine, because we import electricity from Belarus.
Another interesting point. There is a big difference between what Russians say and what they really mean. These are completely different things. After all, Russia has already learned to use plausible narratives that fit into generally accepted diplomatic protocols.
Russia insists on two key ideas. First, they allegedly feel threatened by NATO's expansion to the East. And the second thesis is that Russia does not really want to attack Ukraine.
There is some truth in what they say. But the devil's in the detail.
Let's dwell on this.
The first thesis is that they see NATO's advance to the East as a threat. They, like everyone else, understand that NATO accepted the ex Warsaw Pact countries on the initiative of these countries themselves. This even met opposition from Western countries. However, the accession process took place in parallel with the reduction of military budgets of all NATO member states, including the new members.
Olexander Bohomolov, director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies.
And now the diplomatic debate is about restoring the so-called trust-building measures, the international instruments that limit the accumulation of weapons along the classic "East - West" line. Russia is well aware that it has made significant offensive steps towards the West. For example, it stationed its Iskander launch systems in its enclave surrounded by European nations that are members of NATO. It is Russia that has placed offensive weapons in the region, which, under certain conditions, are a means of delivering even nuclear warheads.
At the same time, when Russia speaks about the threat it feels from NATO, it mostly says it sincerely. But this is not a military threat, but a political one. Russia is well aware that NATO is ready to enter into a direct armed conflict with Russia only under an incredible scenario. But the accession to NATO of such an important country as Ukraine means the end of all hopes of Russia to further advance its influence and continue to overcome the consequences of the "greatest catastrophe of the XX century", as Putin put it, i.e. the collapse of the USSR.
Belief in the decline of the West is very important for the Russians and the Chinese
In Russia's foreign policy documents, I noticed one particular thing that worries Russians the most: their status as a great power. Preservation, reproduction and, if possible, strengthening of this status. They cannot imagine restoring this status without gathering all the resources of the former Soviet Union under their control.
Ukraine in NATO is a threat to the Russian regime
So the "Soviet Union 2.0" project is not a fiction, but a reality we are dealing with?
Yes, I believe so. The point is that Russia is specialized in its idea of maintaining this status of a great power. The two major powers that oppose Russia in the medium and long term are the United States and China. According to Russia's calculations, China is getting stronger and the United States is getting weaker, so the Russian government is convincing itself that this is exactly what will happen. Belief in the decline of the West is very important to them.
This belief seems to have lasted for at least 150 years.
Yes, and they continue to sincerely believe in this together with the Chinese. Russia hopes to become the third corner in this triangle. They are trying to get into every conflict situation, at least to somehow register as an alternative to Western countries. For example, a coup took place in Mali recently. Russian forces there, on the side of the Malian junta, are fighting the French forces that have had great influence in this country.
In other words, the problem they see in NATO's advance to the East is not the fact that military bases might appear in Ukraine, but rather the very fact of Ukraine's political accession to the Alliance.
If it were said at the June summit in Madrid or right now that Ukraine is going to join NATO, it would be very interesting to see what would happen. This is a completely theoretical situation, but it would lead to a deep political crisis in Russia with far-reaching unpredictable consequences for the country's leadership.
A certain element of risk in such a theoretical situation does exist. We would witness a desperate and negative military reaction from Russia. It would unfold much faster than it does now, but it would also dissolve very quickly. Of course, with an unpredictable number of victims, however, not as large as in the Syrian conflict.
If Ukraine is suddenly admitted to NATO, a deep political crisis will begin in Russia with unpredictable consequences for its leadership.
In a perfect world, aggression could be avoided. It would be necessary to strengthen the decision to admit Ukraine to NATO with a military component, to set up military bases on the border with Russia, and to do it symbolically, the bases needn't be very powerful. Of course, this will not happen.
Such a perfect story would mean "the end of all hopes" of the Russian government, because the entire political structure in Russia is currently specialized to the idea of a superpower.
What is Russia actually, and why is it a great power now? Recently, in Western analytical materials, I've seen the same thesis being reiterated that Russia's economy is only equal to Spain's. In Russia, GDP is slightly higher than in Spain, but the difference is not significant. Russia, on the other hand, has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, a unique geography, a powerful army, and remnants of diplomatic instruments inherited from the Soviet Union, such as the privileged status of a member of the UN Security Council. That's what makes Russia a great power. However, the economy is still the key thing when it comes to endurance and the ability to continue one's policy for many years.
Thus, Russia has tiny economic power for a great power, which isn't even diversified, which relies on a limited number of natural resources. And its modernization has failed. There is also an internal imbalance in the country, which creates political problems.
If Ukraine joins NATO, it will mean that the idea of Russia as a great power is falling like a house of cards
So, why is it so important for Russia to receive from the West a formal refusal of Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO? If Ukraine joins NATO, it will mean that the country is irrevocably leaving Russia's sphere of influence and the idea of Russia as a great power is falling like a house of cards. And the whole hierarchy of Russian power is specialized on this idea. If a country's leader or leadership loses on this front, it means that they lose legitimacy and respect. And so the whole structure of power is destroyed.
Let's think again about Spain, whose economy is equal to Russia's. Spain is where the families of Russian oligarchs live. The families of Russia's elite live in the West, not in China. So, there are a lot of differences between the public behavior of the Russian government and what is happening at the private level.
Just like in the Soviet Union, one things were said at the Party meetings, and quite other things at a dinner table.
Yes. The problem of modern world geopolitics is that the supporters of Realpolitik in the theory of international relations do not see any politician as a person with their personal interests. For example, here we have the Russian elite sitting at the negotiating table, claiming that 'our biggest partner is China and the West is on its way down'. And then the curtain falls, and these politicians get on a private jet and fly to London to have fun, communicate with their families, go to the casinos and so on.
Not to China.
They definitely don't go to China.
Politicians in Russia are complaining that the Russians still do not understand the Chinese culture and are not interested in it. So, Chinese TV series started being broadcast on Russian television. This is a very artificial imposition of culture. After all, Russia's cultural identity arose on a European basis, so it is completely not accepting the strange Asian ideas. The soul of the Russians does not lie in China, even the soul of those Russian who live in very close proximity to China.
You mentioned Russia's strategic culture, as well as the second thesis that Russia does not want to attack Ukraine. Can you dwell on this idea?
The short answer is that only under the fantastic conditions I've mentioned can Russia take the plunge of a full-scale conflict. She would like to destroy the independent state, but preserve the country. Because Russia is interested in Ukraine not as a political symbol, but in practical terms. In Russia, they believe that their market is incomplete without Ukraine and without Ukrainian natural resources, as well as human resources, which are lacking in Russia due to the poor demographic situation.
Russia is interested in Ukraine not as a political symbol but for its resources
The Russian authorities would like their arrival in Ukraine to be legitimate. This requires undermining not only Ukrainian statehood, but also faith in the possibility of its restoration.
Refusal to admit Ukraine in NATO
They failed to do this in 2014.
Yes, they failed then but they believe they'll succeed now. Suppose the plan is as follows: the West de facto forsakes Ukraine, exactly as they wish. This will mean a political crisis in Ukraine, the same as I described in Russia. The West's refusal will destroy our foreign policy concept of Euro-Atlantic integration. This is the idea that the most active Ukrainians have been advocating for 30 years.
This undermines the very idea of the project of independent Ukraine and, accordingly, undermines the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government. That would be a culture shock, really.
By forcing the West to refuse Ukraine's accession to NATO, Russia wants kick the chair from under us. However, in another theoretical scenario, if we were accepted, this would kick the chair from under them.
Does the West understand the game?
I am not quite sure that they are seeing the situation the way I am proposing. I think they react to the situation according to the Cold War scheme, the way they are used to reacting to such situations. However, what is happening now is an unprecedented case in Europe.
Russia is playing the game of weakening and loosening the consensus among NATO members, the consensus which is difficult to achieve even without Russia's interference. The Russians are betting on a long game, and this problem will not be solved as quickly as we would like.
A new definition of aggression
Will they stay at the border for a long time?
I don't believe so. I will not pretend to be a military specialist. Yes, they created the infrastructure of military bases in the occupied Crimea and in Belarus. But during their long game, they can do many other things. They have such a deep friendship with China that they can safely move their troops from the Chinese border to the Ukrainian border and keep them here forever. They can continue to carry out cyber attacks or physical provocations on our territory. Their entire arsenal has not yet been used.
Now the nature of conflicts around the world is changing. New forces, means, technical capabilities are emerging. The Russians are the implementers of these innovations and are attracting attention with the way they do it.
Conflicts are becoming more hybrid in nature, the military component becomes only an aid. It allows one to call what is happening a "war" or a "military threat." But a powerful non-military arsenal, under some circumstances, can achieve a much greater destructive effect than the actual military action.
When it comes to the use of non-military means, it's very difficult to prove whether they fit into the definition of aggression. Therefore, it is important to review some defense documents and propose a new definition of "aggression".
Now all other threats, except for the military, are issues that are resolved in court. For example, the downing of the Malaysian Boeing is recognized as the trigger for the West to impose sanctions on Russia. Were it not for this, the reaction to Russian aggression could be weaker. But the case is still pending in court which is legally proving Russia's involvement.
Imagine you're having a fight with someone. But you can't answer every blow because you have to prove first that what your opponent did was a blow, not an accidental wave of the hand or an attempt to say hello. And all this is necessary to prove it in court, the court of appeal etc.
And this takes years.
Yes, and while you're proving all this one side will remain the "good guy" and the other will be the "villain". Russia is the villain in this situation: it knowingly violates international law, but officially declares that all other countries are violating these treaties. Russia understands perfectly well that as long as you will try to prove in court that you were punched, you will continue to be punched again and again.
This is a civilizational challenge. Democracies are now threatened by a dishonest player who, however, has all the elements of influence and external signs of decency. He is the kind of nobleman who is invited to all the balls but everybody knows that whenever the opportunity arises, he will definitely snatch the silver forks.
Ukraine has become a playing field which is quite inconvenient for us
The whole construction of the modern world was formed after the Second World War, but the notions of aggression of that time are now being destroyed. And all modern diplomatic and international legal instruments are obviously not adapted to respond effectively and quickly to the current situation.
I recently came across a text in which the author reflects on game theory. So, there is a "finite" game and a "non-finite" game. Chess is a finite game, you take a certain number of steps and that's it. Most sports games are finite. And there are non-finite games in which you can continue to play indefinitely while there are resources and other players. We are now dealing with an attempt to promote such an unfinished game between Russia and the West, which in itself will support Russia's status as an international player. Russia will be satisfied, even if it does not win this game, but will receive only intermediate bonuses.
There are strategy games in which it is important to simply remain in one's place.
Yes, that's the way Russia plays. It used to play in two worlds in parallel. When the crisis in Ukraine began in 2014, Russia was repulsed, including from Western countries. But Russia took it out in the Middle East. And thanks to its victory in Syria, Russia rose again, became an important international player and regained its lost diplomatic position.
The nature of the Russian operation in Ukraine is that it has concentrated its military and diplomatic experience in the East and directed it to a task that better suits Russian political concept of the world. The only trouble is that the platform for this game is now Ukraine, which makes us a little uneasy. Although, if we are lucky, we can have positive consequences from this situation. We have attracted the world's attention, and world leaders come here every day.
Once upon a time there was a time of Leonid Kuchma, when everyone was wondering: "Do other countries know about Ukraine at all?" And everybody knows that Ukraine exists, that this country is different from other former Soviet republics, and especially from Russia. This allows us to register on the world map, and this should be used.
Russia has made weapons and goods out of threats. It compensates for its economic inadequacy by creating problems for other people which are much more expensive than the entire Russian economy. What has already happened costs NATO countries billions.
However, all Western countries have reached a certain consensus on Russia: they have agreed that the problem exists. Even Putin's "understanders" understand that there is the Russian problem. They only state that they know another, peaceful way to solve it.
We're considered part of the Putin problem but we're part of its solution
Ukraine's problem is that we are considered part of the problem. But we are part of the solution, and we need to work on that. And some countries see it. Countries that are more sympathetic to us, such as the United Kingdom and Turkey, even if they do not see us as a full-fledged solution, see us as part of solving the Russian problem.
More precisely, the problem of Russia's way of existence. That is, the solution to this problem is not the destruction of Russia or something like that, but the solution to the problem of Russian aggressive policy.
In fact, a successful Ukraine is a problem for the Russia that exists today.
I think it is difficult for us to be successful until we all solve the Russian problem. One has to be realistic. It is very difficult to make a country successful when you are in a state of permanent distress.
But even in today's circumstances, Ukraine is part of the solution to this regional problem in Eastern Europe. And it will help Ukraine become better and more successful.