Hey, the West! Feeling Guilty about the War in Ukraine? That’s OK, Russian Propaganda is World’s Best!

By Dr. Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


Many in the West feel guilty about the war in Ukraine. They think it’s their fault. Well, not literally ‘their’, but the fault of their governments. They believe Russia is merely reacting to American expansive hegemony. Their view is reinforced by the American Realist thinkers, most notably Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Besides, there were some rumours of fascists in the Ukrainian government. And nobody likes fascists, right? I mean fascists in Ukraine. Fascists in many other countries, including Russia, the UK and other Western European countries are fine. And what is with this Ukrainian state anyway, I mean is that even a real state? There is Russian minority there, so there must be two sides to this story, right? That’s what we value about British public debate – there are two sides to every story.

Now, seriously. A Yale University historian Timothy Snyder sheds some light on the key reasons why Russian propaganda has been so effective in pushing its own narrative about the war it wages against the Ukrainian state.

“There are a lot of things that play here. The first is that everybody was surprised. People were surprised by Crimea and it was a shock to think that the whole European order could be destroyed – which is, in fact, what happened. One European state invading another European state was not something which was expected. Because it was surprising, people were legitimately confused for a while.

The second reason Russian propaganda worked very well is that Russian propaganda is not so much about convincing you of its truth, it’s about preventing you from acting quickly. The idea that what happened in Crimea was some kind of civil conflict or that those soldiers were not Russian soldiers – those were obvious lies. But while people in the West were processing them, the invasion and annexation were completed. And then once it was completed, people felt a little stupid how they have been fooled and then they didn’t really want to return to the whole issue.

The third reason why Russian propaganda works is that it is addressed directly to very sensitive points. The Russians understand us, I think, much better than we understand them. And that’s because they’re so much like us, like the Americans. They understand that we are vulnerable to certain things. One of the things that we are particularly vulnerable to is the idea that this is somehow all our fault. So the Russians will hit over and over again the idea that the Americans are responsible.

And this is confusing for the Americans, but for the Europeans it’s divisive, because many European will think: “Ok. Well, America is responsible. We don’t have to do anything. Maybe we should blame the Americans for the whole thing.”

The fourth reason why Russian propaganda tends to work is the way western journalism works. Western journalists generally think there are two sides to every story. If the Ukrainians are very bad in getting their side across, which they generally are, unfortunately, and the Russians are extremely good at their version, then the Russian version wins even if it’s much further away from reality. And so western journalists sometimes don’t realize how much they are being used.

And the final reason, although this is much weaker now that people went to Kiev, is that people were reporting on the events from Moscow or from far away. In general, journalists and anyone who goes to Kiev or Ukraine in general report extremely well. So really just going there is often enough.”

Emphases added.

Full interview available here.

Calling Russia’s Bluff: How to Analyse and Finalise the Conflict in Ukraine

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


Take any analysis of the war in Ukraine and it is likely to be limited in the following one or two ways. Firstly, it will probably be heavily biased. Commentators often tend to unreflectively follow the official narrative of Washington and NATO, or completely buy into the Russian propaganda. Secondly, most analyses simplify what is a complex problem, looking for explanations exclusively at the international level (the enlargement of NATO) or within countries’ political systems (autocratic Russia). We need a more systematic approach.

In this contribution I borrow from the late American political scientist Kenneth Waltz. In his book Man, the State and War, he proposed to look for the causes of war at three different levels: individual, state and international. Aware of space limitations, I narrow down my analysis to the last two levels. Such framework, while seemingly less exciting than simplistic finger-pointing, may lead to more insightful conclusions and, in turn, better inform any recommendations we may suggest.

Ukraine in the international system

It is a truism to say that states have the ultimate authority in international relations. In contrast to domestic affairs, there is no international police or a court. Everything that exists in international relations is a result of agreements between sovereign states. This simple fact, however, does not mean that states must fight with each other. They can be friends or neutral towards one another. What did go wrong between Ukraine and Russia? There are two competing narratives which seek to explain the conflict at the level of the so-called international system. The first one has been most forcefully advanced by Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago in Foreign Affairs. We can call it a realist explanation.

In short, Mearsheimer argues that the West is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine. The West, and mainly the United States, has provoked Russia by pushing for the enlargement of NATO and constantly trying to extend the Western sphere of influence. While this strategy may have worked with relatively weak President Boris Yeltsin, it has met with inevitable resistance from President Vladimir Putin, whom Mearsheimer calls ‘first-class strategist’.

The second narrative comes from the capitals of many of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, some Western European countries, from NATO and from Washington. We can call it a liberalist narrative. In this interpretation, Russia is becoming increasingly delusional about restoring its position as the world superpower. This camp likes to remind Putin’s words about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the last century. They point to the wars in Georgia and Ukraine as evidence that Russia is increasingly dangerous and not to be trusted. Ukraine, for its part, should be supported in choosing its own future, preferably as a liberal democracy.

Both sides of this debate present enough empirical evidence to make their case. Ultimately, where one stands in this discussion depends on where one sits geographically and economically. Poland, for example, wants to have a stable, pro-Western democracy on its eastern border. Being a frontline EU and NATO country is not optimal for its security. Germany, France and Italy have a slightly different take; because of their location further away from the Russian borders and different historical experience, they feel more secure. Thus, they are more relaxed to focus on bilateral trade with Russia.

US policy seems to reflect the advice of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a National Security Advisor to President Carter. In his book The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski calls for the strong American endorsement of the newly-independent CEE states. Russia’s intentions are hotly debated, but all the evidence suggests that Moscow will be persistent in preventing Ukraine from strengthening its ties with the EU.

Tell me your form of government, and I will tell you who you are

To explain the conflict at the level of the international system is different from looking for the causes of states’ behaviour in their domestic political systems. Unsurprisingly, commentators are similarly divided in how much emphasis they put on the characteristics of the main actors involved in the Ukrainian war, depending on their values and sympathies.

On the one hand, the liberalist camp draws on the old argument that liberal democracies are less prone to go to war with each other and to pose danger for their neighbours. This is why, in this narrative, Russia’s domestic political system is closely scrutinised. Interestingly, there is little disagreement between liberalists and realists that Russia, under President Putin, has become an autocratic state. Hardly anyone attempts to defend Russia as a democratic country.

While consolidating his power, Putin has practically eliminated any political opposition. He has also been consistent in limiting democratic freedoms in Russia. Admittedly, the majority of Russians do not appear to be concerned with this process, which is unsurprising considering the decades of Soviet social engineering. The problem is, according to external critiques, that increasingly autocratic Russia is a threat to its neighbours. Putin has created a socio-political system in which he can do what he wants abroad. In this context, it is understandable that many analyses intend to expose Putin’s intentions.

On the other hand, some realists, together with Marxist intellectuals and far-right parties in Europe, do not perceive Russian autocracy as a problem, at least not in relation to the war in Ukraine. Rather, they point their fingers at the American political system, which, so they say, is dominated by the neoconservative agenda. It is this neoconservative element in American foreign policy which drives this country to expand its spheres of influence around the world. This, inevitably, results in Washington interfering in other countries’ affairs. Russia is a victim in the Ukrainian conflict. It merely responds to the neo-onservative expansion of American alliances and spheres of influence. The closer ‘the West’ moves to the Russian borders, the more reaction we must expect from Putin.

Again, both sides have ample evidence to advance their case. Putin, without a question, has made Russia more autocratic. The Russian army did advance into Ukraine to support pro-Russian rebels in the south-eastern parts of the country. The annexation of Crimea was illegal by any standards. Russia is putting a lot of pressure, including hardly concealed blackmail, to force Ukraine into its pet project of the Eurasian Customs Union.

To this, the opposite side will respond that American foreign policy is no better. They will remind about an unauthorised invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was conducted under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, but in reality was driven by the neoconservative, expansionist agenda. They will also, as Mearsheimer did in his contribution, criticise the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s.

Inside Ukraine

Even when the discussion zooms in on the domestic situation in Ukraine, the arguments remain ideologically-driven and rather simplistic. On the one side, we hear that the people of Ukraine have chosen Europe through mass protests in Kiev, the so-called Euromaidan. On the other side, we hear that those people are fascists.

The truth is that many in Ukraine are tired and angry about the cancer of corruption and nepotism which eat up the country’s fragile institutions. They see how the CEE countries have transformed after the Cold War and want the same path for Ukraine. There are also large numbers of ethnic Russians and many Ukrainians, particularly in south-eastern parts of the country, who believe their future is with Russia, preferably as part of the Russian Federation. This brings me to recommendations.

Recommendations

Based on this short analysis, I reject the idea advanced by John Mearsheimer to transform Ukraine into ‘a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia’. To be more specific, I don’t think it is a bad option for Ukraine, but I believe it is for Ukrainians to decide. If Ukrainians, in their majority, choose to join the Eurasian Customs Union, the West must respect that. Angela Merkel already hinted that she would have no problem with such an outcome. On the other hand, however, if Ukraine chooses to deepen its ties with, and eventually join the EU, Russia must respect that and stop terrorising Kiev.

The sceptics will be quick to point out that Ukraine is, and always will be ethnically and ideologically divided – thus, the buffer country idea. As a result, the outcome preferred in the south-eastern Donbas region will be rejected by the rest of Ukraine and vice-versa. Here comes my second recommendation: If Moscow wants Kiev to offer the Donbas region more autonomy, Kiev should call Russia’s bluff and do just that.

In fact, Kiev should allow the Donbas region as much autonomy as it wants, and preferably allow it to become fully independent. As a Ukrainian-American writer Alexander Motyl points out in Foreign Affairs, this would allow the rest of Ukraine to speed up the necessary reforms and tighten its relationship with the EU. It would also help to develop healthier relations with Russia, which would have no choice but to finally respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

[This article was also published in Diplomatist – India’s magazine on diplomacy and international affairs.]

As a New Sanctions Package Hits Russia, Europe Slips Back into Old-Style Geopolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


As a fragile ceasefire just about holds in Ukraine, with shelling reported in the pivotal port city of Mariupol, the EU has announced a new round of sanctions against Russia. Targeted at state-owned firms and Russian officials, the package prompted a predictably spiky Russian rejoinder, with Dmitry Medvedev promising an “asymmetric” response – possibly even extending to the closure of airspace.

Custom Union, Ukraine, EU summit in MinskBut whatever the actual impact of the sanctions, and whatever the fate of the ceasefire, one thing is for certain: thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the landscape of conflict in Europe has been transformed for good.

The story of Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union is always told the same way: after the West triumphed over the East at the end of the Cold War, conventional great-power politics on the continent came to a permanent close. And while conflict has hardly disappeared from Europe, the skirmishes that have popped up since 1990 are no longer major inter-state rivalries.

Instead, the story goes, they result from state collapse, bad governance, transnational crime, or tensions around issues like immigration. We are now more likely to discuss European politics in terms of institutions, integration, transnational actors, norms and values than in terms of the clash of big countries.

In a few short months, Ukraine has changed all that. The debates now raging around Europe’s new geopolitical situation are radically different from the conversation of just a year or so ago.

The West’s fault?

The argument is now not about whether state-versus-state wars will return to Europe, but whether they left in the first place. Some analysts have responded to the Ukrainian fracas by proclaiming that Europe has never really moved on from the drama of the great international face-off.

They point out that, in fact, American and European elites have consistently rolled the EU and NATO eastward towards the Russian border – a process which was always going to lead to a clash of interests.

From this point of view, the West is to blame for the current crisis. The only way out, as some foreign policy “realists” would have it, is to turn Ukraine into a sort of neutral buffer state between NATO and Russia, abandoning all efforts to spread “Western values” and promote democracy in Ukraine.

But over the course of an increasingly fraught summer, this perspective has run up against the mounting evidence of Russia’s very active military engagement in Ukraine, pursued despite protests of innocence.

By the end of August, for instance, evidence had emerged showing that Russian soldiers and various intelligence services have been directly involved in destabilising various parts of Ukraine beyond even the flashpoints in the east.

In fact, recent evidence shows that on August 28, Russian forces invaded and captured the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk. Ukrainian forces were forced to withdraw, along with Ukrainian border servicemen, who lack any heavy military equipment.

Those developments ended any real debate over whether Russia has been an actor in the war, though the extent and intimacy of its involvement remained subject to heated debate by the time a ceasefire was signed on September 5.

Don’t overestimate the West

But despite all the evidence of Russian involvement, some commentators still hold that all this instability and violence is the fruit of Western policy – what they frame as attempts to “socially engineer” the domestic situation in Ukraine in the years leading up to Euromaidan.

But the fact is that in those years, the West was anything but agreed on Ukraine’s prospects for membership of either NATO or the EU. For example, while Poland had long been strongly advocating EU membership for Ukraine to flatter its own geopolitical ends, the EU as a whole preferred to confine Ukraine to various “cooperation frameworks” rather than hold open, formal membership negotiations.

Meanwhile, the question of the Eurasian Customs Union is still deeply unresolved. Angela Merkel recently stressed that Ukraine is free to join the Union, which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. In her words, “the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision.”

A Ukrainian decision to join the Customs Union would, in fact, be favoured in many European political circles, if only for the stability it might conceivably bring. Still, the Customs Union Summit, which took place in Minsk on August 26, was a key display of how farcically messy European geopolitics have become.

That meeting was formally convened to discuss economic cooperation, but the main hope was that the Russian and Ukrainian presidents would make some kind of effort to resolve the conflict, or at least make some diplomatic progress.

But after a two-hour conversation between the presidents, there was no indication that they had reached any sort of agreement. The participation of a high-level EU delegation, including Catherine Ashton herself, apparently didn’t help either.

It was in further talks in Minsk ten days later that a ceasefire deal was finally agreed – while the EU’s foreign ministers and leaders were occupied at the NATO summit in Wales.

Get it together

Europe is now facing in its deepest geopolitical crisis since 1990, and has a fiendish dilemma on its hands: whether to tighten up security cooperation and risk further isolating Russia (following NATO’s decision to reinforce its eastern flank), or to pragmatically acknowledge that Russia has its own strategic interests – hoping that they remain confined to eastern Ukraine.

Both these approaches are wrong. On the one hand, Russia must be shown in no uncertain terms that what it’s been doing in Ukraine is illegal, ceasefire or no ceasefire, and that it will pay for it in the end. Central and eastern European countries need to be reassured that their larger neighbours actually care about their safety, and can do something real to help shore it up.

But at the same time, political and diplomatic efforts outside of sanctions must be accelerated, not sidelined by military posturing and the wrangling over sanctions. Otherwise the EU will only find itself further sidelined in future negotiations over Ukraine, just as it was in Minsk

In short, the EU urgently needs to get its act together. If it doesn’t, it will have to finally stop pretending it has any sort of common foreign policy, and accept the consequences as they come.

[This article is cross-posted at The Conversation. – Ed.]

A Debate on Ukraine, Crimea, Russia and International Law’s (In)Capacity

Tonight, academics from Southampton Law School and Southampton University’s Department of Politics and International Relations will debate the place of international law in the Crimean crisis and ask what it means to brand Russia’s action ‘illegal’. The debate will be held tonight at 6pm in Building 46, Lecture Theatre A (Room 3.001).

Ukraine, Crimea, Russia and International Law’s (In)Capacity: invitation to a debate

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics and International Relations

The language of international law has dominated news coverage and commentary on recent events in Crimea. Most international lawyers have condemned Russia’s ‘unlawful’ use of force and its ‘illegal annexation’ of Crimea.

Reflecting on international legal reaction to recent events in Crimea and public perceptions of international law’s capacity to address such crises, academics from Southampton Law School and Southampton University’s Department of Politics and International Relations will debate the place of international law in the Crimean crisis and ask what it means to brand Russia’s action ‘illegal’. We hope you will join us, and join the debate.

The debate will be held on May 1st at 6pm in Building 46, Lecture Theatre A (Room 3.001).

You can register here.

Russian invasion of Ukraine: analysis from @sotonpolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics and International Relations

We asked some of our postgraduate students in PAIR to share their analysis of the worrying situation in Ukraine, in particular through the lenses of the International Relations theory. Here is what they say:

Charles Webb (MSc Global Politics): Over the past week or so Russian forces have been massing along the border with the Ukraine. Russian forces inside the Crimean peninsula have reportedly surrounded key Ukrainian military infrastructure. On the face of it this appears to be a blatant example of realpolitik. What the Russian Federation aims to achieve, and how, is questionable but what is actually interesting is the reminder of the fragile nature, and concept of, nationalism and ethnicity. The message from elites in the Russian administration is that this move is an attempt to protect “ethnic Russians” from Ukrainian ultra nationalists. Although both sides claim that this latest round of hostility has broken out due to the ousting of “pro-Russian” President Viktor Yanukovych this is just the latest in a long history of conflicts over territory and ethnicity. It is interesting to see the rise of chauvinist nationalism in both the Ukraine and Russia considering their long history of interconnected, and at times interdependent, coexistence. Russia and the Ukraine as we know them today are relatively new social constructs. This, so called, “crisis” is a reminder of the powerful, often irrational, and sometimes fatal, attraction of group identification termed nationalism.

Zhanarbek Janabayev (MSc Governance & Policy): Classic realist John Herz’s (1950) conception of the “security dilemma” seems appropriate in contemporary international relations. After the collapse of the Communist bloc and the dissolution of the USSR prevailed idealistic views were about the future peaceful harmonised world. They assumed the end of Russia’s domination and hegemony in post-Soviet realm. Idealists thought about the failure of the “security dilemma” and that this phenomenon is unnecessary anymore. But the recent events in Ukraine show that idealist’s expectations and predictions are utopian. Russia’s biased interpretation and misperception of Ukrainian democratic uprising against totalitarian and corrupted President Yanukovych caused serious tension between Russia and the West Alliance. Moscow escalates the situation and mistakenly considers the democratic movement as a threat to their national security (idea about possible expansion of the NATO to the East). Miscommunication, mistrust, suspicion, uncertainty and failure of diplomacy triggered Russia-Ukraine conflict. Moreover offensive realist President Putin chose aggressive imperialistic tactic of “first strike” (pre-emptive or preventive attack) and started occupation of Crimea and East part of independent Ukraine. Irrational, inadequate and illogical Russia’s foreign policy against international law might provoke the Ukrainian civil war, Russia-Ukraine war or even Third World War (involving Turkey, Poland, NATO).

John Ackom (MSc Citizenship & Democracy): The actions of the opposition/nationalists to occupy government buildings and streets/parts till the deposed presidents resigns can be explained in the light of realism which see international politics to be a constant struggle or competition in which it is not possible for all parties to benefit; one wins at the expense of the other (win-lose situation). Their decision to engage in dialogue mediated by the European Union, however, can be explained using idealism which thinks that progress is possible through cooperation and that international conflict needs concerted effort from the international community to resolve. Similarly, the Russian occupation of Crimea can be explained using idealism. The theory argues that humans are not by nature evil. Rather, it is the existence of evil institutions like military and ammunitions that provoke individuals and states alike to go to war. By this, the Russians would not have entered Crimea militarily but for their military might. The refusal of the Ukrainian military to surrender in Crimea together with the Russian invasion gives meaning to the realist prescriptions that loyalties of allies should never be assumed. Like Machiavelli, the parties seem to agree that ones national security should never be entrusted to any person (mercenaries).