The following interview with author Richard Sakwa was published in Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten (German Economics Reports) on , March 9, 2015. It was translated from the German by Tom Winter for Fort Russ and published there on March 21.
The British-Russian scholar and political analyst Richard Sakwa makes the case that the fault for escalation in Ukraine lies in Washington and Brussels. Putin has no interest in a war, that is the last thing he needs, Sakwa says. He calls for pressure from the West on the Kiev regime, since Ukraine, as a federal state, must also consider the interests of the people of Donbas.
In The Guardian, Jonathan Steele, former correspondent in Moscow, reviewed Sakwa’s remarkable book, Frontline Ukraine. It explains the one-sided view of the West toward the conflict and has minutely examined the mistakes of the EU and the U.S. He criticizes the lack of an independent European foreign policy as well as the undifferentiated faulting of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Steele notes that not once in the darkest times of the Cold War were Soviet politicians like Brezhnev or Andropov so openly and massively insulted as Putin in the present conflict.
German Economics Reports [Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten] spoke with Richard Sakwa, who holds a professorship in Russian and European Studies at the University of Kent. He is a Fellow of the Russia and Eurasian Program in the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. Since September 2002, he is a member of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences. In his book The Crisis of Russian Democracy, he took a critical view of the process of transformation in Russia.
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Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten (DWN): In your book on Ukraine, you used history to clarify the current dilemma: The Russians, as Gorbachev has often insisted, gave up their empire without a war. They did it since they took the development as a success for both sides. They expected a partnership. The Americans, though, took the fall of the Soviet Union as a one-sided victory. Is this the background that has brought back the Cold War in Europe?
Richard Sakwa (RS): Exactly. The point of departure was the Malta conference in December 1989. It was here, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the new post-war system was formed. US President George W. Bush certainly understood that the power of the Soviet Union was waning, but he failed to understand that Mikhail Gorbachov planned to establish a new kind of policy, without winners, without losers. Instead, the US considered it a victory of their own policies. Today, 25 years later, we understand the depth of the strategic defeat. The worst thing about the Yalta conference was that there was no European statesman there, like Churchill at Yalta, who would hold up the interests of the western Europeans. So our fate on this side of the continent was settled without our participation.
DWN: Can the differing views of history also lead now to a new Cold War?
RS: They’ve already done it. and I’ve been warning about it for years. We in Europe have lived for 25 years in a paradise of the blessed, in which none of the fundamental security issues have been settled. So rather it has been a period of Cold Peace. Now it has come to a collapse of order that has resulted in a kind of Cold War.
DWN: NATO seems determined to act. Is the existence of NATO in its current form in a modular world part of the problem, or part of the solution?
RS: We could have dissolved NATO after 1989, or should have included Russia in a reformulated organization. Instead we took the worst possibility of them all: an enlarged NATO, that now begins encircling Russia on all sides and yet excludes Russia. You don’t have to be a strategic genius to understand that Russia, a nuclear power, would sooner or later oppose this.
DWN: You argue that Europe failed, in this historic moment, to formulate its own independent policy.
RS: The EU has a weak sense for strategy, and the outcome of their own dealings for the existing power relationships reveals it, as they acted in Ukraine. That was stupidity on a grand scale, driven by Poland and the baltic states. I’m speaking now about the new Atlantic Pact, in which NATO, the US, and the EU are in fact interwoven. This doesn’t mean that countries like France and Germany cannot individually, independently, take initiatives. But everything they do is tightly bound to the transatlantic partnership. Germany under Merkel has lost a lot of its earlier global independence. That was the price of the Atlantic support for Germany being a leader in European policy and being able to be active in economic policy. I believe that EU foreign policy under Federica Mogherini has the potential to learn from the mistakes of history, but Mogherini is under tremendous pressure from the Atlanticists who want her to adopt their point of view. The results are a disaster, as we are now seeing.
DWN: How do you see the position of Russian President Vladimir Putin?
RS: Putin is a known quantity, and he has warned from the Munich Security Conference of February 2007 that Russia is not happy with the current strategic situation. Unfortunately, nobody listened to him. You have to realize that any leader of Russia would hardly act any differently than Putin has. It is not the case, that Putin lives in a different reality; the problem is that nobody in the West has thought that Putin would act in the current situation in exactly this manner.
DWN: Is Putin taking advantage of the conflict, to use the situation to present his own people with an external enemy?
RS: No, I think that is a false argument. He doesn’t need this war. He has done everything to avoid it. The responsibility lies in Washington and Brussels. Putin has fantastic approval ratings. He successfully pulled of the Olympic Games in Sochi. What’s happening now is the last thing he needs. He is not a revisionist leader, and therefore the western reading of his handling is mostly all wrong.
DWN: How do you explain the fact that throughout the West there is a completely closed view of the story, namely that it is Russian aggression — in spite of the fact that, through that intercepted phone call of US diplomat Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland, we have clear indication that Washington was actively involved in the overthrow of the Yanukovich regime?
RS: I think the prevailing and utterly simple western view of the matter is the most unsettling aspect of the whole crisis. It is frightening to see how the public and the elites in the West have accepted this false viewpoint. It is always easy to put blame on Russia for everything. Russia is far from perfect, but it is for sure not the evil force that the West is now proclaiming. For me, it is also shocking to see how easily the western economic leadership have been led to this false reading.
DWN: Can you spell out what would be the best government organization for the Ukrainians?
RS: Best thing would be a federal state, not a central one. This is unlikely in the near term, but, taking the long view, it is the only way for Ukraine. The Donbass will never again be a part of a nationalist, centralist Ukraine.
DWN: Should the West review the matter of “territorial integrity” of existing states, with consideration to the existence of ethnic minorities in most of them?
RS: That probably should happen. We need a grand new conference, like Yalta or Helsinki, to take up all these themes. These problems are getting more and more pressing. This also relates to Transnistria and other regions, even Kosovo.
DWN: The Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has many a time said that everybody, who wants to be Russian, should get out to Russia. Does the idea of “ethnic cleansing’ in east Ukraine lie behind this?
RS: Yatsenyuk is today the most dangerous man in Europe. I can’t understand how such an outright Nationalist can be treated with respect.
DWN: Is this conflict a war over resources? Is it the case that the Americans want a foot in the door, towards energy policy?
RS: That is certainly a part of the problem. However, I believe that this perspective isn’t there for the Americans: basically, the same thing is happening as in Libya or Syria, or in Iraq. A “chaos regime” has brought a new style of realpolitik to Europe, and we let it happen. What’s the point of the EU if it can’t even prevent a war on its own continent?
DWN: What’s your take on the activity of American officials in the Ukrainian regime, Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, for instance?
RS: Shocking. A proud nation like Ukraine doesn’t need people like that. That was a purely demagogic step of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk.
DWN: How is this conflict going to end?
RS: We’re walking a fine line between outright war and a kind of standstill agreement. The courageous Merkel-Hollande initiative for Minsk II might stabilize the situation. But we have to understand that this is only the beginning of a possible peace-process. The Kiev regime must be pressured to formulate the land so that there is an acceptable mode of return for the people of the Donbass into Ukraine. I think, though, that a further division of Ukraine has become very likely. The current government in Kiev is making the problems worse rather than addressing them.