Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Looking from Within: A Ukrainian Perspective On Russia's Invasion 

Looking from Within: A Ukrainian Perspective On Russia's Invasion 
 Oleksiy Semeniy
Director, Institute for Global Transformations

Russia's military invasion of Ukraine last February instigated a large-scale war, which is still ongoing to this day and keeps drastically changing the lives of millions of civilians. After close to one year of conflict, we asked Oleksiy Semeniy, director of the Institute for Global Transformations (IGT), about how both the Ukrainian government and population anticipated and reacted to Russia's attack, its underlying causes, along with how other countries were helping Ukraine cope. He also evokes the relationship between Russia and European security, and overall implications for global governance. 

Were you surprised on February 24 by the Russian attack? And then by the impeccable reactions of President Zelensky and of the Ukrainian people? 

Since the beginning of the year, it was obvious that some kind of military attack from Russia against Ukraine was imminent but the scale was what surprised us all. I thought the attack would mainly focus on the Donbass, be centered around occupying the region, and put extreme pressure on Ukraine to reach other goals. Rather, unexpectedly, the first and most important military blow came from the direction of Belarus. This move, breaking the passivity of Belarus, greatly damaged our relations with the country for the future. For many years, there will be questions from Ukraine about Belarus' role in the conflict, apart from the part played by its leadership under Lukashenko. Even today, many missiles, including ballistic ones and drones, are flying not only from the territory of Russia but also from Belarus, where it is easier to launch them. In a general sense, the military attack was therefore not fully unexpected but its scale and form truly were. 

The Ukrainian president along with the country’s apparatus were, to some extent, also shocked by the scale of the attack. They had obtained information beforehand from military intelligence services, which proved extremely accurate. As a result, Zelensky knew that an attack would happen one or two days before February 24th. If you consider general capacities of intelligence (especially the technical ones), American, British, and French ones prevail over Ukrainian ones. Nevertheless, Ukrainians have much stronger capacities with regard to the war on the ground - not only in Ukraine but also in Russia, where we have more sources of information and where we better understand nuances and obstacles. We comprehend Russian psychology and its way of thinking. It is crucial to note that Ukrainians played a crucial role in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union's past successes. To this day, we are familiar with the Russian system from the inside. Looking at the current Russian leadership and its members, many have direct Ukrainian origins or intense family ties. Therefore, for president Zelensky psychologically, Russia's attack was a huge blow. Until the last moment, despite the information he received, he had hoped that Russia would not attack his country because its people would understand what it means. Objectively, he was prepared for an invasion, but on the other hand, until the last moment, he did not want to accept the idea that there would be a large-scale war initiated by Russia. 

What would you say to the argument that the Ukrainian government, between 2015 and 2022, was not constructive enough in implementing the Minsk agreement and, then, bears a part of the responsibility for triggering the war? 

I have reevaluated my assumptions about the Minsk process since the start of the large-scale invasion from Russia. Now it's obvious that no matter what we would have done or agreed upon, it would have been in vain. What we see today from Russia demonstrates that all overarching Russian strategic goals are irremediably incompatible with the goal of Ukraine to be a sovereign nation and state. In the past eight years, we have tried to find compromises and new ways to stop hostilities between Russia and Ukraine (reintegrating Donbass, proposing solutions on Crimea, etc…). Russian diplomats are very sophisticated and strictly formal. 

In Minsk, real mediation was defined as an unrealistic situation and parties did not succeed to stand fully united. 

They try to adhere and stick to every sentence of every document, often not taking into account the overall situation, changing realities and the true interests of the parties involved. They are hence very tough on fixing wording and standing upon it, regardless of justice and the rule of law. In the Minsk process, some participants reported their impressions to me, especially interesting were their impressions on contacts with Russian counterparts.

In Minsk, real mediation was defined as an unrealistic situation and parties did not succeed to stand fully united. Different camps were offering different solutions, and Russians instrumentalized that during negotiations to get propel clashes and use it as an argument against mediation. Apropos, the most comprehensive document ("Minsk 1") and basis for many settlement solutions were concluded in September 2014, while in media the most popular set of documents refers to February 2015, ("Minsk 2").

For many years, the head of our delegation was Leonid Kuchma, who served twice as the former president of Ukraine, and who actually knew Russians very well since the Soviet period. He was very skeptical and radical from the beginning toward Russians and Putin, even prior to the war. In 2003, there was an accident on Tuzla island in the Kerch Strait. The maritime border between Russia and Ukraine is fixed to the east of this island, and the Kerch strait, where most ships come in and out, is on the side of Ukrainian territory. In 2003, Russians started to build a dam, approaching the island and then trying to make a breach into Crimea, silently and while ignoring Ukrainian and Western countries' attempts to discuss the situation. This was escalating as Kuchma was on a visit to Latin America, where he tried several times to reach Putin by phone in vain. Ukrainians indicated to Russians that if they crossed the line, they'd fight back. By the way, we succeeded to stop Russians at that time not only due to our decisiveness and abrupt return of Kuchma from abroad but also because of the smart utilization of the Budapest Memo (now criticized by many). For Kuchma, this was a lesson: despite networks and relationships, the Russians are vested with some kind of imperialist mindset and will not care about others' interests. This was a painful process to learn. 

Before, I might’ve questioned the Ukrainian position, but after February, my guess is that even if they had been a successful implementation of the Minsk agreements, Russians would still have not been willing to recognize de facto Ukraine as a sovereign country and engage in an amicable partnership. 

How do you assess the way EU countries and the US are supporting Ukraine? And among Europeans UK, France, Germany, Poland, and others? 

This is an ongoing process, where both parties modify their positions over the course of time. If you take the military dimension, before February, the most positive track of supplying Ukraine with some weapons was just to have some javelins or stingers (i.e. light missiles to support a sort of partisan war if it was going to happen). Western partners succeeded in supplying Ukraine until spring, not only because Ukraine claimed something, but because the Western side understood that Ukrainians are capable to fight and defend their country and that they will do it until the end. Therefore, partners could have the guarantee that Ukrainians would not give up and that their weapons will be immediately conquered by Russian forces. As a result, avenues of military supply are increasingly opening up to Ukraine. 

And now, military specialists are already discussing, to my guess, other serious military equipment to be supplied, which could represent a substantial change in the war. The gap between what Ukraine is getting and claims to need is not that big if we speak about the characteristics and specifications of the weapons, but we have here a space for progress if we speak about quantity and numbers. Western partners evaluate well what type of supplies Ukrainians need at a particular period; first, it was about the destiny of Kyiv, then about resisting in the Donbass, and now it is about counter-attacks, requiring other weapons. 

The gap between what Ukraine is getting and claims to need is not that big if we speak about the characteristics and specifications of the weapons.

On economic assistance, we see more formal avenues opening up. The EU will play a more extensive role in financing economic assistance and recovery to Ukraine due to different reasons. The US and the EU will divide their roles, the first placing more emphasis on military supplies and intelligence sharing, while the second on financial economic assistance, especially where recovery is urgently needed, like in political and energy infrastructure areas. 

Ukrainians want more to be supplied, but this can sometimes be unrealistic. To prepare drawdowns of arms and equipment, the sending country must prepare documents, assess resources, and make sure they are allocated where they are needed. This requires time, swift institutional cooperation, and a certain level of political decisions to be made. Overall, both economic and military assistance could be increased, but realistically, I assume the current level is more or less adequate for the situation, but the situation must be monitored as it unfolds. 

We finally must look at the situation inside Russia and Russian activities abroad. Russia is now trying to play not only against Ukraine but directly against the West. If Russia fails now in Ukraine, it will try to counter-attack the West across other places globally and there many indications of such preparations. Russians are blowing back on a full scale, trying to use all available resources to crush down the West, since they understand that if they don't, they will be the ones crushed. Stakes have increased so much that it now becomes an issue not only for Putin and his regime but for the very survival of the Russian state in the very nearest perspective. 

Same question about China & the Global South?

Russia's narrative of the Global South fighting with it against the West is discredited as those countries made it clear they are not wholeheartedly supporting Russian escalation attempts. 

From what we have seen in the past G20 Summit in Bali, there were signs that Russians were still trying to play the card that they are fighting against the West and that the Rest (the Global South) are on their side. Yet at the Summit, China, India and Turkey subtly indicated that they were fed up with Russian endeavors, that they were suffering from their adventurism (better to say idiotism), and that they must quickly find a solution to this war they themselves initiated. Russia’s narrative of the Global South fighting with it against the West is discredited as those countries made it clear they are not wholeheartedly supporting Russian escalation attempts. 

How will Russia react to this change? A pathway would entail the acceptance of starting to negotiate to end the war, whether with Ukraine directly or with the broader West, and finding a way to a compromise. Another course may be to escalate and increase the stakes once more in order to coerce the other side either to surrender or accept your demands. Until now, Russia chose the latter option. There was a precedent of this in Samarkand past September (2022 SCO Summit), where China, India and Turkey had indicated some needs, and Putin reacted two days later by partial mobilization and the decisions on the so-called annexation of four Ukrainian regions. 

How do you imagine an endgame in the war? Is the Ukrainian line - no concessions until the recovery of all territories - a bargaining position or a real policy? 

Until now, nobody sees how the war will end. According to estimations, both sides are currently putting emphasis on a military solution. The vast majority of the issue is directly connected to military developments on the ground. But afterward, the focus will shift to what to do with Russia in the aftermath of the war. Western countries should decide in what place, if any, they see Russia in the European security architecture. Three scenarios exist with regard to Russia: either with, without, or against - with at least two camps in the Western world. 

One, mainly composed of the UK, the US, and European central and Baltic States supports the idea that Russia should be restrained to an extent that it would never have the chance to threaten any neighboring country again (entailing the removal of military resources and capabilities, predominantly nuclear if possible). This view basically upholds the idea that the European security architecture is better without Russia, even including scenarios where Russia collapses into smaller states. The other group would be represented by France, Germany and Italy mainly, noting that considering the faults committed by Russia, we should not forgive it, but accept that Russia will remain part of our borders as a state and that in order to have more security and fewer resources devoted to active defense against Russia, we need to find some kind of agreement after the war. Some prerequisites include regaining full Ukrainian territorial sovereignty and integrity, some reparations from Russia, and a general overall settlement with the West. But after all of this is concluded, let's give Russia the chance to be a part of this European security architecture with some very clear preconditions to be met before agreeing on it. 

I don't know which logic will prevail. The first group should be more influential in the short term, but in the long one, when the war is finalized and settled, and Russia is on the border of the EU and NATO in another form, there will be a question of coexistence to be seriously addressed. We must find a way to at least avoid military conflicts and set - or impose if need be - clear and valid rules of the game (either new ones or confirm the previous). 

We must find a way to at least avoid military conflicts and set - or impose if need be - clear and valid rules of the game.

What will be the fallout of this tragic adventure for Russia itself and for European security? What kind of security arrangements will be needed to ensure the security of Ukraine in the aftermath of the war? 

We must first be cautious because this regime is transforming. They are also opening the windows for other types of regimes in Russia, potentially changing Putin's regime to another one. Based on earlier Russian history, transformations happened abruptly and quickly, and were very often unexpected - not only by foreigners but by many people inside. We should therefore be prepared that some changes might happen very drastically. 

The basic prerequisites for change are already present, including a forthcoming military defeat for Russia in Ukraine, growing tensions inside society and increasingly obvious economic problems. In a cornered horizon of 2-3 years, there is a high probability that Putin will be either pushed out of power (or simply dead) due to different reasons. The essence of the Russian political system will change as well. Basic scenarios foresee that the new leadership will be even more radical than the current one. We can anticipate more confrontative people at the government level in Russia. How long will it take for them to fail is another question… But the probability that they will come to power is quite high. 

Nevertheless, I see the possibility afterward that the tendency to normalize your own country and start to care about your internal development first will prevail. It will maybe start from the regions of Russia. In a horizon of five years, there is a real perspective of Russia's substantial decentralization or even dissolution in the worst case. The role of its regions will hence be crucial.

In a horizon of five years, there is a real perspective of Russia's substantial decentralization or even dissolution in the worst case. 

Now, the most valuable decisions are being taken in Moscow. If other regions develop their influence and capabilities and take this opportunity to understand that, if Russia is not going to be transformed substantially in a peaceful way, the other way on the crossroads would mean the dissolution of Russia and the failure of the whole Russian state, then it pushes them to be more active and responsible in shaping Russia’s future. This will hence be a crucial challenge for Russians. 

Do you think that lessons should be drawn from what is happening now for global governance? 

The first lesson to be drawn is that there is a gap between the legislative basis enshrined in many international organizations and reality; we need to close this gap. When you have some instruments in your hands but cannot (or do not) want to use them, you either have to transform the current institutions to be much more adjusted to reality and efficient, or dismantle the whole system. In other words, you must either reform the whole system or develop very new institutions or networks of agreements, which need to be adhered to by all parties. Also, we now see evidence of a huge push for regional cooperation projects all over the world. This will continue to increase, maybe concentrated in certain continents such as Latin America, Asia or Africa. The question then becomes: if regionalization is further developed, at what point and how do regional organizations actually come to each other to resettle the global rules of the game? But in general, to build a peaceful and sustainable world, where everybody could find their own place and prospects for the future, we should accept our differences without going to escalating and coercing others to accept our views. Better opt for a "win-win" strategy than a "zero-sum" game.

Finally, the thorny issue of Crimea. Many in the West believe Ukraine should not regain it, as Putin could be tempted to use nuclear weapons to protect his historical achievement. Yet Ukrainians would not forgive any of their leaders who would compromise here. What is your own view? Any way to reconcile the two positions? 

Crimea will be a complicated issue for the few next decades at least (and not only for Russia and Ukraine but Europe in general) regardless of the developments, whether this relates to the continuation of Russian occupation, a return to Ukraine, or some in-between or limbo status. Currently, no Ukrainian politician will dare question the fact that Crimea will not be taken back soon. There is no question at all that it should be returned. But I expect in the due course of the war that there could arise new nuances in this issue, especially after the expected de-occupation of further territories (especially of the Donbass). It appears like both parties are determined to go until the end (of the other party, i.e. disaster and dissolution of the enemy), but after a change of their leadership in the short or medium term, some other options may arise.

Any historical analogies fail, but the current animosity between Russia and Ukraine (the two largest nations in Eastern Europe) reminds me of wars between Germany and France (the two largest nations in Western Europe) during the 19th and 20th centuries: it ended or had been settled only after the full defeat of either party. Unfortunately, the story could repeat itself. 


Copyright : AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English