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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Is Russia on the brink of war with Ukraine?

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week, we’re looking at growing tensions between Russia and the West amid warnings that Vladimir Putin could be preparing for military action against Ukraine. In recent weeks, American, EU and Ukrainian leaders have been increasingly explicit in their warnings about the dangers of renewed Russian aggression. The current tensions have their origins in the conflict of 2014 and 2015, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, which is part of Ukraine, and supplied military support to pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. A ceasefire was agreed through the Minsk accords, and talks between Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine have continued through the so-called Normandy format. But tensions have been rising again in recent weeks as Russia has massed troops along its border with Ukraine. My guest this week is Kadri Liik, an Estonian academic and journalist based at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. So how serious is the threat of war?

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Gideon Rachman
This week, Nato foreign ministers met in Latvia, a Nato member which borders Russia. At a press conference, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of Nato, addressed the situation in Ukraine and tried to sound firm and resolved.

Audio clip of Jens Stoltenberg
The situation in and around Ukraine remains fluid and unpredictable. There is no certainty about Russia’s intentions. We see a significant and unusual concentration of forces, which is unjustified and unexplained, and accompanied by heightened rhetoric and disinformation. And we know that Russia has used force before against Ukraine and other neighbours. Today, ministers discussed the situation. We stand united in our aim to deter Russia from any further aggressive actions. We call on Russia to be transparent, de-escalate and reduce tensions. Any future Russian aggression against Ukraine would come at a high price.

Gideon Rachman
A few weeks earlier, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, had made it clear that America is concerned about the possibility of war.

Audio clip of Antony Blinken
We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions. But we do know its playbook, and our concern is that Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014, when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory, and did so, claiming falsely that it was provoked.

Gideon Rachman
Russia’s long complained that its Nato and America that’s the aggressor in this situation, pointing, for example, to joint military exercises between Ukrainian and Nato forces. Last April, in a state of the nation address, President Putin warned the West not to cross Russia’s red lines.

Audio clip of Vladimir Putin with English interpreter
(Russian language) I hope no one will cross Russia’s red line. But in each case, we are the ones who will decide where the red line is. (Russian language) Organisers of any provocation, threatening our security will regret it, but they haven’t regretted anything for a long time.

Gideon Rachman
But why are tensions building now? That was the question I started with when I spoke to Kadri Liik.

Kadri Liik
Well, the reason is obvious. It is driven by Russia’s troop movements around Ukraine’s borders, and I think what stands behind them is still signalling, Russia is trying to tell us that when they say that they want control over Ukraine, they mean it one way or other, either by implementing Minsk agreements as Ukraine signed at gunpoint and essentially make one region of Ukraine, Russia’s Trojan horse within Ukrainian political system. Or if Minsk agreements are unimplementable by Ukraine, then Russia would be happy to conclude an agreement with the West, meaning it wants the West to declare Nato enlargement impossible for Ukraine.

Gideon Rachman
Some people seem to think that Russia might actually, if it doesn’t get what it wants, invade. I’ve heard different viewpoints expressed among Americans, Europeans. How seriously do you take the prospect of actual war?

Kadri Liik
I do not exclude it because it seems to me that President Putin really is serious about his aims in Ukraine. At the same time, of course, it needs to be said that overall the domestic political situation is not conducive for going to war. It is evident that Russia’s population is interested in social welfare and things like that. They are not keen to have a war with Ukraine. The Kremlin should know it because they conduct opinion polls and focus groups, and they are quite tuned to listening to their population. Likewise, I think it would be a huge strain to an ageing political system, and everyone is actually tired in the establishment and the need for some sort of change is palpable. And I think a war would be a huge stress to that. So there are things that disincentivise going to war definitely. But that said, it cannot be completely excluded, seeing also how Moscow seems to be walking away from the negotiation process on the Normandy format, then Minsk agreements.

Gideon Rachman
So just tell us a little bit about why Russia feels that the Minsk agreements, which eventually froze the conflict that began when they annexed Crimea and destabilised eastern Ukraine, did they have a point when they say that they haven’t been implemented?

Kadri Liik
Yes, they have a point. Ukraine is not passing the sort of legislation Minsk agreements foresee. But of course, Russia is not delivering on its part either. And my feeling is that Minsk agreements might be unimplementable.

Gideon Rachman
What is it in the Minsk agreements that Ukraine isn’t doing, but that, as you say, might be impossible?

Kadri Liik
Well, Ukraine, for instance, they are not passing the sort of legislation that is foreseen essentially federalising the country and delegating rights to regions that would give them a veto, right? For instance, over future geopolitical choices. Risk legislation is not passing through Ukrainian parliament, and it is questionable how hard any of the presidents have been pushing it. So I think the reason here is that the sort of control that Moscow wants to have over Ukraine is actually not possible. I mean, it was possible for the former Soviet Union, that had to invest lots of resources into maintaining control in eastern Europe or over Finland, if we talk about “Finlandisation”. And I don’t think that is simply possible in today’s world or using more lightweight measures, but Moscow does not seem to have reached that conclusion. And I think also in its understanding of Ukraine, I would actually distinguish between Vladimir Putin and the rest of Russian establishment because I’m not sure that Putin’s passion about Ukraine is very widely shared by everyone else. My experience, rather, is that the wider establishment has understood that Moscow’s notion of Ukraine didn’t correspond to reality. And 2014 offered ample evidence of that, seeing how rebellion didn’t take off in eastern Ukraine.

Gideon Rachman
You mentioned why the domestic situation in Russia might make Putin pause before deploying the troops that are now running Ukraine. But might he look at the international situation and think that now is quite a good time? After all, the US has signalled it’s pulling back with the Afghan withdrawal. Biden has made it clear that he’s focused above all on China, and even that is quite difficult because of the coronavirus pandemic, the continuing crisis in democracy in the United States, so might they feel “well look, America is not gonna respond if we attack, and neither is Europe”.

Kadri Liik
Well, I think they are probably right to assume that militarily, neither the US nor Europe will go and help Ukraine. Military aid, yes, but boots on the ground? Hardly. But that has always been the case, so that is not the new variable. Otherwise though, I think Putin also values the relationship he has with Joe Biden. Biden really has gained some respect in Russia by picking his fights wisely and by prioritising his agenda with Russia wisely. Instead of lecturing to Russia about democracy and human rights, he has chosen to discuss strategic stability and cyber issues. And by this, really something with some progress is possible. And in Moscow, but this is very well respected and now invasion of Ukraine would actually break all of that relationship and bring about new sanctions and you name it. So I don’t think Moscow necessarily wants that. I think they would much more like to maybe gain some sort of agreement with Biden. “Let’s see. You need to contain China. You don’t need the trouble in Ukraine. So let’s agree that Ukraine will not gain Nato membership ever.” But that, of course, would be something that would be next to impossible for the United States to agree with.

Gideon Rachman
Hmmm . . . Although in a funny way, it seems to me a slightly artificial argument, because my understanding is that Ukraine is a very, very long way from ever gaining Nato membership, even if the US and the Europeans don’t want to rule it out forever.

Kadri Liik
Well, that is true, but you are talking to someone whose country was very far away from ever gaining Nato membership, and Estonia gained it. So I think that for as long as door is open formally, it is always possible with some lucky turn of events to open it in practice because, you know, things will change if Putin leaves power, if Ukraine reforms. It will be easy for them to tell Westerners that “see we qualify, you should accept us”, and I’m sure there will be people who will be supporting that claim. So I think unless Nato really redefines its mission and says that “freezes our membership, we are not going to expand. Our door is not open to any qualifying democracy”. I think that option might remain theoretical for a long time, but it will always be there.

Gideon Rachman
Although it strikes me talking to you, there’s something paradoxical about the Russian insistence on this because one of their major talking points is that you promised us that Nato expansion would never take place after the end of the Cold War, and it did. So why would they take seriously a promise that Ukraine would never join Nato? I mean, as you say, things change.

Kadri Liik
Well, I think they would want it signed and sealed, unlike the former promise of Nato non-enlargement. Because I think, I’ve tried to ask several people about that too, and my understanding is that many people told Moscow that there were no plans to expand Nato beyond the borders of former East Germany. And they didn’t lie. They didn’t deceive Moscow. That really was the case when these questions were discussed with Gorbachev. I have asked Gorbachev himself and he confirmed it, but it was never concluded as a formal agreement. Then yes, later things changed.

Gideon Rachman
And what do you think of the current situation in the EU? Because we talked about how the Russians will be viewing Biden, but obviously the EU itself is in flux. Angela Merkel is going and Macron is up for re-election. Brexit is continuing to disrupt European unity. Do they think Europe is so divided that it won’t take any action over Ukraine?

Kadri Liik
I think so. Yes they think Europe is divided. They are not sure what will become of Europe in general. They’re not sure if European Union will be there to stay. But that has been the case already for quite some years, ever since the Brexit vote. So that is also another recent development that Russia postpones engagement of Europe because it doesn’t know to what extent Europe is a reliable partner. Russia clearly would love to discuss also the fate of Ukraine more with the United States than with Europe. And I think the current signalling might also be an invitation to the United States to start discussing this matter. Because earlier it’s been France and Germany, Moscow’s partners in the Normandy format. And France and Germany have always . . . they can reveal that Ukraine is a victim. And as Moscow sees it, for given far too much to Ukraine because of that. So now, yes, Moscow takes United States more seriously as a security actor and dismisses Europe, but as that has been the case for a while, I don’t think the whole would necessarily follow from that, and I don’t think that Merkel’s departure or Macron’s re-election will play any role in those sorts of deliberations.

Gideon Rachman
And what about thinking in the West? I mean, is there a school of thought that says, “Well, maybe the Russians have a point that we should give them some of what they want”. I know that is always denounced as appeasement but there are articles that you can point to in influential journals in the US. Macron himself was for a while pursuing a rapprochement with Russia. Do you think that those voices may grow more powerful?

Kadri Liik
I would say there is more unity in Europe than one would necessarily assume. I think analytically, Europe is on the same page. None of us here thinks any longer that Russia is going to be a like-minded partner or, you know, all raise expectations we had in the 1990s. But no one has a good idea as to what to do with Russia. But is as it is and here, yes, we have different goals. I mean, there are Baltic states and Poland. I would also add Sweden to that pattern, but still think that the West has leverage to influence Russia’s behaviour in major ways using sanctions, using dialogue or restricting dialogue, trying to bring Russia to correspond to rules and norms. And then there other countries that think that risk is impossible and we should deal with Russia as it is. And I guess yeah France and maybe Italy, are the flag bearers of that camp. And then there is the German theory that wants to still have always contacts, have dialogue on small matters, but oftentimes they still expect that something they get could grow out from something small. If you foster trust, then that can lead somewhere, but it’s very German experience, of course. But that approach has worked for them in the past, like criticising Russia has worked for the Baltic states. So it’s also different historical experiences, but fighting it out, which makes it an interesting debate. But I’m not sure that we have come to sort of common policy recommendations yet. But, you know, Ukraine is not always to deliver and I think. There is a thing called society in Ukraine, and that is something that Europe probably sees better than Moscow. Putin has a blind spot for societies in Russia and even more so in Ukraine. And I think Russians really do not understand properly the limits, the pressure of society puts on Ukraine’s politicians. It’s a paradoxical situation in a way because Russia and Ukraine, they are two countries that are organised in completely opposite ways. Russia is a top down country. Ukraine is a bottom up country, the very weak political elites, but very strong society. But the elites always fear, and that makes it really hard for the two of them to negotiate or to actually see the constraints, then the room for manoeuvre that the other one has.

Gideon Rachman
And what about the president of Ukraine, Zelensky? I mean, he was literally a comedian before he became president. How is he shaping up? Do you think he’s adequate to the very dangerous situation he faces?

Kadri Liik
He’s in dire straits. His popularity is fading. He’s in a way symptom of the problem I just described, that Ukraine has strong society and weak political elites. And that, of course, makes nothing easier in these negotiations. That said, always Russian paranoias, but Zelensky might try to attempt to take Donbas by force. I don’t think Ze have (sic) any grounds at all. I assume that he’s much more realistic than that, and there surely are people who advise him against that.

Gideon Rachman
And obviously, the main focus of Western concern about Russia at the moment is the situation in Ukraine for very understandable reasons. But there’s a lot else going on. And do you think Russia has other weapons that it can deploy to put pressure on the West and is in fact deploying? I’m thinking in particularly of concerns about gas supplies from Russia amid rising energy prices and also the situation with Belarus, where some see Russia’s hand behind this refugee crisis, where refugees have been coming to Belarus and then trying to get into Poland.

Kadri Liik
Yes, I think we are maybe connecting slightly too many dots when we see it all as one chain of events. I think Belarus is Lukashenko’s undertaking, which Moscow clearly tolerates and maybe even enjoys. They are seeing Lukashenko angering the West, trolling on our affairs. But I don’t think that this was somehow inspired or masterminded by Moscow. And the gas crisis also, it has multiple reasons: surging demand, outphasing of coal, Germany giving up nuclear. So it’s not something that Russia has done to us.

Gideon Rachman
Hmm. And finally, you’ve written that viewed from Moscow, the world in a way, it’s not just a threatening place, but also a very confusing place because of this emerging multipolar world. What did you mean by that?

Kadri Liik
Well, I have been fascinating to follow foreign policy debate in Russia, and I think it has been largely unnoticed in the West to what extent Russia actually is adapting to a world where Western hegemony is not there any longer the way it used to be. And it’s just sort of “be careful what you wish for” case for them. They have been asking for multipolar world. Now they see that a true multipolar world is actually very chaotic and it’s hard to set goals there. And so by experimenting, yes with new ways of policymaking, sometimes driven by the Kremlin, but at other times also driven by other forces in Russian political landscape that includes lots of policy entrepreneurs. These are people who initiate something on their own and then expect to be rewarded by the Kremlin. Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has become famous by owning his troll factories and now also be walking at military company. He might be viewed as one of them, or at least he was. Maybe now he’s more influential than that. Or say there was a Russian-inspired coup attempt in Montenegro, but probably wasn’t devised in the Kremlin. And also much of what we classify as interference, which is actually just news coverage by Russia today or Sputnik, but does not necessarily always reflect Kremlin’s fresh thinking or fresh planning, I would say that on the media landscape, if you want to know what the Kremlin is planning, it is best to look at Russia’s domestic channels because there you can see what the Kremlin is preparing. For the world, they are trying to build up leverage to be used as and when needed. Another strand is actually focusing on self-isolation. I think that discussion peaked around a year ago. Influential analysts saying that, “let’s just try to focus on domestic affairs. Don’t do anything abroad because any effort becomes a liability”. Another question, of course, is to what extent that informs Russia’s true policymaking or to what extent any of this even reaches Vladimir Putin, who is the sole decision maker on everything important. But I try to follow it, and I find it fascinating because it really tries to move away from the Western centrists of the past 40 years or longer.

Gideon Rachman
That was Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me. I hope you’ll be able to join me again next week, when it’s possible the Rachman Review will not be put up on its normal day, Thursday, but be delayed for a couple of days because of a special interview that we’re working on.

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