Russia Direct sat down with eminent Russia scholar Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent to discuss his new book Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands and to analyze the geopolitical challenges ahead in 2015.

Ukrainian servicemen sit atop an armored personnel carrier at a military base in the town of Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine. Photo: Reuters

With no end in sight for the Ukrainian crisis in 2015, leading academics are beginning to offer their insights on how to address this geopolitical standoff. Among them is Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent. His new book Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands provides an explanation of the origins of the crisis in Ukraine and tracks down the circumstances that provoked the intense confrontation between Russia and the West, which has been described by some experts as a new Cold War.  

“The asymmetrical end of the Cold War effectively shut Russia out from the European alliance system,” Sakwa said. “The failure to establish a genuinely inclusive and equal European security system imbued European international politics with powerful stress points, which in 2014 produced the international earthquake that we call the Ukraine crisis.”

He sees this crisis as “the worst international crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.” As Sakwa sees it, the current crisis has called into question the idea of a Greater Europe, or a way of bringing together all ends of the European continent into a new grouping that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev once called the Common European Home. According to Sakwa, the crisis is a major challenge to a multipolar and pluralistic concept of Europe.  

Russia Direct conducted a Skype interview with Sakwa to find out about the major ideas of his book and how they can be applied to minimize the current tensions in relations between Russia, Europe and – more broadly – with the West.  In addition, Sakwa talked about the U.S.-Russia geopolitical face-off, the current economic crisis in Russia and its implications for the rest of the world. 

Russia Direct: You say that your new book is “an attempt to explain how Europe got into this mess.” So, how did Brussels and Moscow get into this mess?

Richard Sakwa: There are several levels to this, and the first level is the overall geopolitical one, the failure of the European Union to achieve what many people nowadays call the Greater European vision of uniting the continent after the end of the Cold War. And there is the failure of all sides that I call the asymmetrical end of the Cold War. The two came together to create the crisis.

And so, instead of a Greater European vision that is built on Gorbachev’s idea of a Common European Home, we had an extension of what I call the Wider European agenda, a Brussels-centric view of the world, according to which the European Union is the main form of European unity. And, of course, this by definition excludes Russia. So, there was an exclusive dynamic. And the final element of that is that Europe itself became more deeply embedded in what I call the “new Atlanticism” - the effective merger of the European Union with NATO [and the U.S.] And this is a whole new constellation of power that systematically excludes Russia.

There was another level: the internal crisis in Ukraine. We had two visions of Ukrainian statehood that have been contested. Basically, the struggle has been between the monist vision – that is, an Ukrainianizing version – and a more pluralistic vision. And today’s battle is not over individual forces but the struggle over who will decide what it means to be Ukrainian. So, these two crises came together with devastating consequences.

The monist vision appeals to the tradition of Ukrainian statehood that stresses separation from other east Slavic countries, above all Russia and Belarus. It stresses Ukraine’s distinctive development. On the hand, the pluralist tradition draws on the idea of Malorussianism to suggest that Ukraine is a multicivilizational community of different nations, although all can be equally loyal to the idea of an independent sovereign state.

A pro-Russian rebel guards at the checkpoint outside of the town of Gorlovka northeast of Donetsk. Photo: Reuters

RD: To what extent do these ideas help to find the roots of the current crisis in Ukraine and understand it?

R.S.: We need to adopt a more pluralistic vision in understanding the internal Ukrainian issues, but also a more pluralistic vision of Europe as well. What I am saying in the book contradicts those who see Atlanticism and NATO enlargement as the only game in town. I am saying that there are more options available, above all the idea of a multipolar and pluralist Europe.

This would help transcend the negative logic of “Russia vs. the West” and offer the idea of a more pluralistic Europe. You can begin to move to what I would argue for is the need of a Helsinki 2 Meeting, a peace conference didn’t take place at the end of the Cold War. This would be a meeting of equals within Ukraine and Europe with equally different views – Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Ukraine – about the challenges facing the continent.

RD: One could argue that multipolarity is a sort of buzzword, used by the Kremlin in its publicity campaign to account for its recent foreign policy initiatives to undermine the United States’ global influence and political heft. In fact, it can be seen as a tool of Russia’s propaganda to justify its controversial policy in Ukraine.

R.S.: Of course, multipolarity is used instrumentally by some Russians on some occasions. But the debate today isn’t so much about substantive issues, it’s about who has the right to have different views. There is not so much a geopolitical debate: Discussions today are above all “geoideological,” a type of contestation in which everybody tries to de-legitimate the views of others - not to defeat them in terms of logic (as it were), but to de-legitimate the very existence of an alternative view. That is a fundamental danger that the world faces. In a nutshell, it is hegemonism vs. a pluralist reality.           

RD: Yes, but again the war against hegemonism is used by the Kremlin to point fingers at Washington and blame its policy, while U.S. attempts to exert its influence can be just seen as an attempt to maintain its leadership that it achieved thanks to its economic and geopolitical clout.

R.S.: Leadership is a code word. Others would call it hegemony. And, of course, the United States tries to maintain its hegemony in the form of a claim to world leadership. On the one side, the United States considers its leadership as a guarantee of a range of liberal universal public goods.

But there is another side of the U.S. hegemony which is far darker, far more imperialistic. There is a constant battle going on within the United States between its liberal universalism and militaristic hegemonism. My final point is that the world is changing and the U.S. has to learn to share leadership with others. And this is the biggest challenge for it.

RD: Do you agree that now we are witnessing a new (full-fledged) Cold War between Russia and the West, or is it just a cyclical confrontation, provoked by the Crimea tussle?

R.S.: It is not a Cold War, but is not cyclical either; it is more substantive than just normal ups and downs, far more substantive, this is the moment of truth. So, we are into a new ball game entirely reflecting some fundamental economic and political shifts in world power. However, I wouldn’t call this a “Cold War” because the term “Cold War” focuses attention on the past, whereas today’s conflict is something fundamentally new.

RD: So, how should we call it?

R.S.: You can call it an intensification of the cold peace; however, I am averse about the term “Cold War” because if you use the term means that you lose the intellectual specificity of the present situation, the constructional framework of what makes this conflict epochal. This term is misleading. Again, we are into a new ball game. What is the new ball game called? I don’t know, but I am working on it.    

RD: Previously, you mentioned two origins of the Ukrainian crisis – geopolitical (the failure of the Greater Europe project, NATO expansion) and internal ones (the failure of agreement on the nature of Ukrainian statehood). Given all this, what should we do to minimize the implications of the crisis in Ukraine?

R.S.: Everybody has to make compromises. On the one side, Russia has to make unequivocal commitment to Ukrainian integrity without Crimea. Of course, there should be compromises from the Western side as well. However, at the moment, there is no intellectual framework in the West to understand what is going on in Russia’s foreign policy and, more broadly, to the structure of international power. The point is that if the crisis had not been provoked by the situation in Ukraine, then no doubt something else would have acted as the catalyst. As we saw before the Sochi Olympics, there was an extraordinarily tense environment for at least two years before Euromaidan and Crimea’s annexation.    

And Atlanticists are instrumentally using this crisis this now. It has to be a very patient intellectual work explaining that the situation is more complex than the Atlanticists – including neo-cons in Lithuania, UK, the U.S. and elsewhere – would present it. It is a very dangerous constellation of power dominating at the moment in Western thinking, and there is a disturbing absence of critique – the lack of intellectual challenge.

RD: Given the Republicans’ domination in the U.S. Congress, their hawkish attitude to the Kremlin and Putin’s hawkish intransigence, will Moscow and Washington be able to find common ground?  

R.S.: I don’t think things are going to be better for the next few years. It is a complete stalemate. On the one hand, the major goal is to understand the dynamics of the standoff. And by understanding the dynamics, you can develop alternatives. With Russia’s relations with the United States going to be bad for many years, the European Union and some leading European states could act as intermediaries to begin to de-escalate the current conflict.

President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the June 6 celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy.Photo: RIA Novosti

RD: Previously, Germany has been a sort of the intermediary state that could help Russia and the West find common ground. But now, Berlin seems to have been disappointed by Russia’s reluctance to come up with a compromise, as indicated by a recent interview of Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel. So, who will help the Kremlin in this case, if even its traditional and reliable partners seem to be giving up?    

R.S.: I think that Germany is still able to act as an interlocutor in a geopolitical sense to regulate the Ukrainian crisis. However, Germany under Merkel has to take big decisions: Now it is more important for Berlin to maintain its alliance and allegiances within the Atlantic community, to ensure the consolidation of its influence within the European Union.

The special relations between Russia and Germany for the time being are over, but Germany is still an important actor in regulating both the Ukrainian and the broader European crisis. Yet, it doesn’t mean that today Russia has almost no one to work with within the European Union.

RD: What about France? Does it have the potential to be an interlocutor between the Kremlin and the West, given the December visit of French President Francois Hollande to Moscow to find common the Ukrainian crisis?

R.S.: Previously, France invited Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko to Normandy in June, which was quite useful. So, there is the potential for France. But on the other hand, President Hollande’s position is exceptionally weak internally. So, he won’t be able to do much.

RD: So, what other European countries can be seen as intermediaries in this case?

R.S.: Equally, Italy could be also a good partner, with strong economic links to Russia and an independent position in European politics. There are few countries that may be able to find a way out from the immediate conflict and, most importantly, an immediate solution of the Ukrainian crisis, because it is a permanent source of crisis in the European body politic.

There are no other countries that can effectively act to regulate the European crisis; indeed, the UK, Lithuania and others have been able to turn the European Union from a peace project to one that continues the Cold War by other means.

RD: How do you see Resolution 758 adopted by U.S. House of Representatives and the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, both aimed at condemning Russia for its policy in Ukraine? Do you agree that these documents could fuel further U.S.-Russia confrontation and lead to a war, as some predict?              

R.S.: One and the other resolution obviously only exacerbate the situation. They reflect a very narrow vision of the world. These documents are not helpful at all. They are basically declarations which could lead to renewal of conflict in Ukraine. We are in a situation of extraordinary danger for humanity; we are in a pre-war situation now and we need to find arguments for politicians to calm them down. These resolutions might bring us closer to the abyss. We shouldn’t underestimate the danger that humanity finds itself in.     

RD: Do you agree that Russia’s current economic turbulence (falling ruble, shrinking GDP, gloomy forecasts for 2015) is the result of the Western-led sanctions and "the price for Crimea," as the Kremlin’s political opponents argue?

R.S.: Absolutely. Russia’s weak economy becomes weaker after sanctions: It has been punished for its actions and the tensions of a larger geopolitical and European situation.

RD: If a full-fledged crisis hits Russia in 2015-2016, will Russia’s current political regime survive?

R.S.: The crisis could get far worse. Nevertheless, the regime has enormous popular support, as indicated from public opinion polls. But this support is built on delivering public goods - security, rising standards of living and so on. The regime will survive, although it may be forced to change some of its characteristics. The system is very complex, with many dark sides as well as positives aspects. The danger is that Moscow will overreact and provoke a chain reaction. In this situation, Russia should adopt a calm position and react without excesses.

RD: Some argue that the economic and political crisis in Russia might backfire and have negative implications for the rest of the world. Is it really the case?

R.S.: It could. Even though Russia is not the world’s biggest economy, it is one of the biggest: It represents 4 percent of the world’s GDP and was the 8th largest economy in the world (before the ruble collapse). In 1997, even the relatively small economy of Thailand was enough to cause an economic meltdown in Southeast Asia and, then, a global crisis; so a major economic crisis in Russia could have a devastating effect on the European and world economy, while destabilizing world economic and global governance.