27 January 2022 (Thursday)
Mr. Aleksander Kwaśniewski, President of Poland between 1995-2005, was actively involved during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine where together with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, he helped broker an agreement that led to the peaceful transition of power in Ukraine.
Róbert Vass, Founder and President of GLOBSEC, Slovakia.
The aim of this exclusive closed-door event was to discuss the heightening tensions between Ukraine and Russia, which are spurring fears that Moscow will soon launch an invasion. To learn more about this topic, we are delighted to have heard from Aleksander Kwaśniewski, President of Poland from 1995 to 2005. Given his long-standing experience in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Mr. Kwaśniewski, provided his expert opinion on the region followed by a discussion with a question-and-answer session.
The situation is not new
International tension precipitated by the current crisis on Ukraine – Russia border is serious. It could even be described as dire, but unfortunately, there is little that is new about it. Russia’s President Putin has always dreamt about renewing the imperial dream of greater Russia. Russian union – unlike the predecessor the Soviet Union is not burdened by ideology. Mr. Putin has in the past described the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. So what should a Russian president do in the 21st century other than try to overcome this catastrophe and restore greatness to lands that were once rightfully joined? According to Moscow, there are territories and countries that should if not directly governed, be at the very least indirect sphere of influence. The countries are – three Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. To the south wall of the central Asian Stans such as Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and of course Kazachstan. To the west, these countries are Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. These countries cannot be allowed to decide their own geopolitical heading.
To achieve this dream Ukraine is step number one. Not a part of Ukraine, but all of it. There can be no partition, that needs to be understood. Baltic states are too far gone and too small to be interesting. The trouble with this thinking is that it is Russian, not just Putin’s. The solution to this is unachievable. Ukraine cannot be allowed to become a successful democratic, capitalist country deciding its own geopolitical heading. It would undermine the Russian narrative of – only a strong hand can rule Slavic lands and success can only be achieved by overcoming weak-willed and messy democracy.
There can be no mistake the war has already started. Ukraine has been at war since 2014. The orange revolution was a warning sign to Russian leaders. It signaled clearly, that Ukrainians do not subscribe to the view of one nation and one language with the Russian Federation and that there is actual popular will of the Ukrainian population to choose a different path from the Russian one. This is why any pro-western tendencies in Ukraine had to be systematically undermined. The brief history of recent years illustrates it very clearly. Following the Orange revolution former Ukrainian president Yanukovich almost signed the EU association agreement. As a result of the eventual refusal to sign this agreement the events at Maidan happened. One could even speculate that the escape of Yanukovich to Russia was also carefully orchestrated by Moscow. With the aim to promote the narrative of needing to protect fellow countrymen (ethnic Russians) in the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk from Bolshevik/fascist Kiev revolutionaries.
It could therefore be argued that the current military build-up is not a precursor to invasion, but rather a tool to achieve the ultimate long-term goal of destabilization of Ukraine. It is clear that military intervention would be costly not only in men and material but also in reputation. The war if it was to take place will be many things, but it will not be secret. And it will be very hard internationally to show that Ukraine was the aggressor and that Russia was ‘only defending itself. What would be even worse is that it would make Ukrainian society and political elites united in a common purpose – to defeat the incursion. By applying constant unrelenting pressure and diverting precious resources Russia may hope to destabilize Ukraine to a point of submission via finding a proxy in Ukraine. Someone other than exiled former presidents or people close to him. The survival of democratic prosperous Ukraine with a young and perhaps imperfect market economy is an existential threat to the Russian regime as it directly undermines the existing narrative that Slavic countries can only be ruled with an iron fist.
At the same time, there can be no mistake – this is also a test for ‘Western’ used as a broad term of countries west of Russia who are either in NATO or the EU. But a test of resolve and a test of values. Putin does not believe that either of those institutions should or will survive. They are in his eyes weak and indecisive.
What can be done
There are multiple layers to the response that can and should be taken in the face of this aggression. It has to be noted that from this point on, arriving in a situation where all sides win will be difficult. Most likely it is all a zero-sum game. Any gain for Russia is a loss for one or more of the western partners or Ukraine itself. Putin’s ultimate goal of establishing an exclusive zone of direct influence / might be legitimate from his perspective. But the support of the West should go to every state willing to go its own independent way.
Military support to Ukraine must continue, as per the request of Ukraine's military and in accordance with NATO planning and NATO decision-making. Respecting and emphasizing respect for independent decision-making of all countries and their future heading as well national sovereignty. Unity, solidarity, and belief in the core values of democracy and freedom.
Economic support, despite Ukraine not being an EU member a vehicle for economic support, should be found. This applies also to the embattled energy sector, where at present NORD STREAM 2 project appears to be a liability and its construction a mistake or possibly even a trap set a long time ago.
Political support, is far less costly than military support. It requires regular and persistent reassurance of the Ukrainian people and its leaders about the Alliance’s and EU’s commitment to its core values. Reassuring public opinion of Ukraine is important for calming the situation. Hostility towards the Russian regime and its aspects has to be contrasted with the support of democrats and democratic movements within Russia and those in exile as well.
Diplomatic engagement – despite the harsh and intractable rhetoric persistent and patient engagement could over time lead to a partial solution. Even short term there is merit in buying more time to find a united negotiating position within the ‘western block’. Their question that could be asked at the negotiating table other than, arms control regimes, is to pose a question. What can be offered to Ukraine in lieu of NATO membership that would guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity? What is Russia prepared to offer Ukraine?
Of course, continued and potentially long-term diplomatic engagement does not automatically mean an easing of pressure. Troops on borders and troop movements can last well into the foreseeable future. The risk of long-term little to no result diplomatic engagement could be Ukrainian’s feeling that their freedom and sovereignty is a matter for negotiation. And that Ukrainian NATO membership is an unattainable red herring.
There has to be a very clear-eyed understanding of the will and determination of Mr. Putin and his regime’s ultimate goals, mentioned earlier, the restoration of Great Russia.
The message of the discussion is clear. Strong sanctions are for those that are weak. Having stated that there is some merit in applying sanctions that would not be indiscriminately aimed at the Russian population at large but rather at Putin’s loyal political elite. Namely by extending, broadening, and deepening the sanctions on named Russian individuals. Freezing of assets, accounts, and property introducing travel bans to named individuals has the potential to inconvenience to officials to the point of hurting their personal business and family. On the other side of the spectrum is the possibility of canceling SWIFT access of Russian businesses and private persons. Effectively cutting Russia off from the majority of the rest of the financial world.
Russian military and political elites, other than all-out invasion could choose to escalate but maintain limited objectives. Such as declaring Luhansk and Donetsk republics’ independence. Alternatively, it is to establish a land route to Crimea, by way of forcing a corridor along the coast, possibly even capture Kharkov.
However, or foreseeable military scenarios have an astonishing cost in men, materiel, treasure, and reputation. What is certain is that Ukraine crisis is here to stay and that all actors can prepare for a long confrontation with Mr. Putin long after this particular crisis will have subsided.
- The situation is dire and dangerous, but alas not new. The war is being fought since 2014
- Although Ukraine is only a pawn and a target of Russian ambitions it should not be left to its own devices, because that would be a failure for Western democracies and its international regime supported by institutions as well.
- Western countries, the EU, and NATO must support Ukraine, militarily, economically but most importantly politically
The long-term plan is a destabilization of Ukraine to the point of countries fragmentation. Democratic Ukraine with a functioning market economy is an existential threat to the Russian regime.