Ukraine, the Russian Perspective

It is hard to think of a recent policy issue on which American public opinion has been so unified: just about everyone is pro-Ukraine, but hardly anyone wants American troops to fight on the ground.

Despite this apparent consensus, various public figures, including Donald Trump, have been vilified as pro-Russia. It light of recent revelations about Russian atrocities, it is safe to assume that essentially no one–certainly no politician or major public figure–is currently in the Russian camp.

Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand the Russian perspective on the Ukraine conflict, and on Euro-Asian geopolitics in general. This interview of Sergey Karaganov, adviser to both Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and author of the Karaganov Doctrine, is a good place to start:

Bruno Maçães: Why did Russia invade Ukraine?

Sergey Karaganov: For 25 years, people like myself have been saying that if Nato and Western alliances expand beyond certain red lines, especially into Ukraine, there will be a war. I envisioned that scenario as far back as 1997. In 2008 President Putin said that if Ukraine’s membership of the alliance became a possibility then there will be no Ukraine. He was not listened to. So the first objective is to end Nato’s expansion. Two other objectives have been added: one is the demilitarisation of Ukraine; the other is denazification, because there are people in the Russian government concerned with the rise of ultra-nationalism in Ukraine to the extent that they think it is beginning to resemble Germany in the 1930s. There is also an aim to free the Donbas republics of eight years of constant bombardment.

There was also a strong belief that war with Ukraine was inevitable – maybe three or four years from now – which could well have taken place on Russian territory itself. So probably the Kremlin decided that if you have to fight, let’s fight on somebody else’s territory, the territory of a neighbour and a brother country, once a part of the Russian Empire. But the real war is against the Western expansion.

You don’t have to buy that–I don’t–to find it interesting. But I really want to focus on Karaganov’s view of Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Pretty much everyone seems to assume that Article 5 is an iron-clad guarantee that all NATO members will come to the military aid of any member that is attacked by a foreign power. That is the interpretation that Joe Biden implicitly adopts when he vows that the U.S. will fight to defend “every inch” of NATO territory.

But, as I wrote here, that is not what Article 5 actually says. This fact has not escaped the notice of Russia’s rulers:

BM: You talked about demilitarisation of Ukraine, but it seems that such a goal would not be achieved if the West continues to provide Ukraine with weapons. Do you think Russia will be tempted to stop that flow of arms, and does this risk a direct clash between Nato and Russia?

SK: Absolutely! There is a growing probability of a direct clash. And we don’t know what the outcome of this would be. Maybe the Poles would fight; they are always willing. I know as a historian that Article 5 of the Nato treaty is worthless. Under Article 5 – which allows a state to call for support from other members of the alliance – nobody is obliged to actually fight on behalf of others, but nobody can be absolutely sure that there would be no such escalation. I also know from the history of American nuclear strategy that the US is unlikely to defend Europe with nuclear weapons. But there is still a chance of escalation here, so it is an abysmal scenario and I hope that some kind of a peace agreement between us and the US, and between us and Ukraine, can be reached before we go further into this unbelievably dangerous world.

BM: If Putin asks for your advice, would you tell him that Article 5 is to be taken seriously or not? I understand from your words that it is not to be taken seriously in your view.

SK: It might be that Article 5 works, and countries rally to the defence of another. But against a nuclear country like Russia…I wonder? Put it this way: if the US intervenes against a nuclear country, then the American president making that decision is mad, because it wouldn’t be 1914 or 1939; this is something bigger. So I don’t think America could possibly intervene, but we are already in a much more dangerous situation than several weeks ago. And Article 5 does not presume automatic obligations.

The critical factor in any deterrence strategy is credibility. Does Great Power A believe that Great Power B will actually respond to a provocation as threatened? Here, unpredictability is an asset. The most effective American presidents are the ones deemed “cowboys” by foreign governments. Will President Reagan/GW Bush/Trump actually retaliate as he says? I don’t know. He just might.

So, is Joe Biden credible when he vows to defend every inch of NATO territory? One might ask, is Joe Biden ever credible, about anything? But here is a more specific answer from a Kremlin insider:

BM: What was your reaction to President Biden’s comment that President Putin cannot stay in power?

SK: Well, President Biden often makes all kind of comments. [Afterwards,] he was corrected by his colleagues, so nobody’s taking the statement seriously.

I think it is fair to say that nobody is taking Joe Biden seriously. That is a bad thing when our foreign policy is based on deterrence and we are dealing with a nuclear power.

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