News ID: 323414
Published: 0945 GMT August 12, 2022

West wanted Russia to eventually become strategically irrelevant

West wanted Russia to eventually become strategically irrelevant

IRAN DAILY: The Russia-Ukraine war has already demonstrated its potential to radically change many taken-for-granted international norms and dynamics, even paving the ground for alternative forms of the world order to emerge. The global media, however, is saturated with analysis from Western vantage points, resulting in a serious lack of authentic Russian analysis of the issue that would elaborate on both the causes and the unfolding of the event from Russia's vantage point.

That’s why we asked Andrey Sushentsov to have a talk on the matter. A political scientist and foreign relations expert specializing in the American studies, Sushentsov is the dean of the School for International Relations at the prestigious MGIMO University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) and program director of the Valdai Club.




IRAN DAILY: What made it both necessary and urgent for Russia to launch a war on Ukraine? Why was it that war couldn’t be avoided, and it had to happen now?

ANDREY SUSHENTSOV: In the years that were preceding 2022, Ukraine started to become a very significant military player in Eastern Europe. Not only independent Ukrainian capabilities, but especially, in most instances, they were Soviet capabilities as Ukraine was one of the biggest hosts of the Soviet military legacy. In addition, Ukraine started to be a platform for NATO instructors that had been nurturing the Ukrainian army to become a significant military threat against Russia.

If you check the numbers, you can see that Ukrainian military forces were up to 300,000 people strong, that’s only one-third of the Russian military forces. And if you combine them with several other military departments like its ministry of interior, border guards, and special security services, the number could reach seven or eight hundred thousand people, which is a really significant military force compared to Russia.

Ukraine also had an unresolved inter-ethnic conflict, basically with their own citizens in Donbas, but also with people with Russian identity or origin. And since this region is bordering Russia, Russia cannot remain passive, as all of such instances became issues of Russia’s internal politics when rights of those people is oppressed, or the Ukrainian government says “You should never teach Russian in school” or “You should abolish memorials commemorating fallen victims in the Great Patriotic War”, which are sacred notions for every Russian. For eight years since 2014, Donbass region was constantly under military pressure from Ukraine.

This created a very special identity not only in Donbass region among Russians who were opposing Ukraine, but also inside Ukraine itself, which started to see Russia as a vital threat or enemy. They started to see their own destiny in vanquishing Russia. You can compare this relationship to the type of relationship which exists between India and Pakistan. Both countries have originated simultaneously when the British Empire collapsed, and for Pakistan the birth of the statehood started around the vital moment when they understood their destiny to be opposing India. They simultaneously produced significant military forces, especially nuclear weapons. Pakistan started to develop foreign relations hostile to India and friendly relations with China, aimed at counterbalancing India. Pakistan’s strategy toward Afghanistan has some anti-Indian overtones as well. There are regional crises with occasional attacks, too.

Russia perceived Ukraine as becoming this type of country, understanding that in several years it can possibly acquire significant amount of armaments that would be sufficient to inflict disproportionate harm to either Donbass or Russia itself. Russia, then, decided that it would not wait until that moment, particularly seeing that NATO and the US were assisting Ukraine to become such a counterbalance to Russia. That’s why Russia decided it couldn’t let this happen.

Q: So, Ukraine was defining itself in direct opposition to Russia, right?

It wouldn’t be the problem if they only had developed a hostile identity like Baltic countries or Poland. But Ukraine was also nurturing a very significant military capability. They were number three army in Europe, after Russia and Turkey. That’s an important powerhouse with more than 2,000 tanks, which is more than what every other European nation has combined.


Q: If Russia felt threatened by the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, why does it seem to be nonchalant about two Scandinavian states moving to do exactly that?

If you compare the military capabilities of Finland and Sweden, you see that they are grossly overpowered by Ukraine. They have around 100 tanks each, which is just negligible compared to Russian capabilities. And they don’t contribute to NATO capabilities to the same extent that Ukraine does. Russia would be threatened if the United States deployed sophisticated armaments, like cruise missiles or anti-ballistic missile systems, on the Finnish or Swedish soil. That would really impede Russian security, but in every other respect, the direct threat that both countries pose to Russia is much less than Ukraine.


Q: Then, how did Ukraine become the frontline of the crisis?

The key issue in the current crisis is not Ukraine, even though it's a battlefield of the crisis. The key issue is the Russia-West relations. The logic of that relations for three decades after the end of the Cold War was that the Western NATO countries were just assuming that Russia would have to reconcile with any move that NATO countries are making in Europe or elsewhere; that Russia would have to just concede and eventually become strategically irrelevant; that we'd have no other option than to join the West.

That was the case until they reached the borderline with Russia in Ukraine, and found in Ukraine this partner nation that is eager to provoke Russia and fight with Russia. To some extent Ukraine to Russia is like Cuba to the United States, a country that is eager to be on the frontline of the battlefield, though Ukraine is much more powerful than Cuba. Cuba was favorable to the placement of Soviet nuclear armaments, but didn't have a military capability to fight United States. Ukraine does have this capability to fight Russia. And the West wanted to use this resource and instrument.


Q: How do you imagine Russia and the World at large in the aftermath of the war? What key transformations are likely to occur due to the war?

Generally, this crisis would end up in a very different type of relations between Russia and the West. And it would also inflict changes to the general world structure. There is a host of open questions in this regard. What would happen with the United Nation? How would the global economy and logistics work after this crisis? How would Russian exports work, and to what parts of the world? How Russia-European relations would look like? Would European Union be as economically sustainable and durable as it was with cheap Russian resources since they will now have to buy much more costly energy and other resources from the Middle East or other parts of the world and compete for those resources with the growing economies in Asia?

Of course, it will affect Russia, too. Because every strategic choice opens up one direction and closes another. It's clear that Russia’s relations with the West for the coming decades, for the next two or three decades, will be an adversarial relations. Russia and NATO countries will now be adversaries. And it's clear that it's a certainty as you will not have any other options here.

This certainty works for not only Russia, but also the United States. Americans will have in Europe partners that are submitted to the discipline of NATO because they don't have any other options. Since they don't have the option to work with Russia, they are now forced to rely on the American military protection. And this protection will cost them dearly since they not only need to buy much more expensive energy and other resources, but also they have instability on their borders with Russia which forces some of their investments and finances to go from European markets to American market. And in this respect, European Union would become less relevant and less strategically autonomous. And it will probably be one major consequence of this crisis.


Q: Could you please elaborate on its specific impacts on Russia itself?

I think Russia's relations with the non-Western countries will be strengthened. It's clear that currently Russia and China are working closely together to mitigate the consequences of this sanctions regime. China is also very closely investigating what type of effects these anti-Russian sanctions would have on Russia and global economy. Moreover, they are trying to contemplate if a similar scenario can be implemented against China? Russia’s relations with India, Iran, Arab countries, countries of Africa and Latin America, major powers of Southeast Asia, they would have a booster effect, and I think it would greatly change the structure of global affairs.


Q: The Russian foreign minister recently said that Moscow’s goal is to topple Zelensky’s government, which is a twist compared to publicly announced aims of its “special operation” in Ukraine in the beginning. What has changed so far that made Russia aim for higher?

Denazification left Zelensky an opportunity and option to put away some of the ugliest practices of Ukrainian politics that have been in place for at least a decade now. They were installing into security services and into ideological order of the government some of the most radical nationalists who were publicly proclaiming the primacy of the Ukrainian nation over Russians, over Jews, basically over everybody else. And they, in some instances, led to tragic events like the massacre in Odessa in 2014, shelling in Donbass, prosecution of pro-Russian political forces or media activists, or just prosecution of people of independent mind.

In fact, Ukrainian politics have witnessed for several years, at least, illegal persecutions, by which I mean extrajudicial activities, the street violence type of persecution against people who were considered to be anti-government or anti Ukrainian nation.

By putting forward the optional denazification, Russia proposed Zelensky to stay in power but cancel a few laws, get some people out of power, and reintroduce the idea that Ukrainians and Russians are two pillars of the Ukrainian nation. But since then, Zelensky embraced the radical Ukrainian nationalism. And now, there is basically no distance between him and those people who, at some point, were in opposition to him and were threatened by him when he came to power. He is now 100% reliant on them, and he is the president of war.

I don't see any option for him now to backtrack and denazify himself or his government. And thus, Russia is pushing now forward with the idea that we need to change the government to effectively denazify Ukraine.


Q: The fact that war has taken so long so far, and can potentially turn into a war of attrition, surprised many who expected it to be a rather quick affair. What made it take so long? And, did Russia expect it to unfold as such? Or it went in for a rapid victory only to find out it can’t happen that way?

Obviously I'm not part of the circle of the Russian government which was developing the campaign plan, and we don't know what the plan was. But it's clear that Russia was prepared for both of these scenarios.

One should take note of the current situation when Russian forces are continuously waging the campaign for 170 days by now, which is absolutely spectacular, especially if you check how few people are actually committed to this military operation, which is not even one-fourth of the Russian military service, or even less. Also note that Russians are all the time fighting in minority against more numerous Ukrainian forces.

Moreover, to have a comparative sense of the frontline, if you put it on the map of Europe, you will see that current frontline is absolutely huge, from like northern German city of Kiel to southern Italian city of Messina. It's like a continental-wide frontline, comparable to a Second World War type of frontline, which is maintained by relatively not that numerous Russian personnel who are constantly rotating and always on the offense.

I think what helps Russia achieve what it has achieved is the air preponderance, the type of armament it uses, rocket technology superiority, sophistication of its intelligence capability, and, of course, assistance from Ukrainians who are helping Russian forces in targeting Ukrainian positions by giving information.

Q: Like fifth columns.

Yes. But you know, it's just citizens of those areas which want Ukrainian forces to be defeated.

Q: And they are sympathetic to Russia.

Right. These are like unseen military divisions, which are basically assisting Russia. Russia would have never achieved anything like this without the grassroots support from people.

In addition, the Russian government is engaged in two fronts, or two battles, simultaneously, one on the Ukrainian Front line and the other in the economic sphere.

Q: Sanctions!

Yes. The latter speaks to the absolutely necessary goal of maintaining stable and predictable economic situation in Russia. General population should not witness hardships. And I think government is currently working pretty heavily and successfully on maintaining this.

Q: Can you give us some specifics about how Russia is handling the sanctions for his own people?

The sanctions were indeed very harmful and meticulously planned. As we know now, they started to be planned by European countries and the United States in December last year, with the coordination of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.

Q: That is, many months before the actual war.

Right, many months before the campaign began. And the swiftness of the implementation showed that they had already prepared the book on sanctions, just waiting for the green light to move forward.

It's clear that the Western calculation was to inflict a sudden and enormous damage to Russian economy that would force Moscow to reconsider. And I don't think that many people in the West expected this crisis to be a long one; they rather thought that there would be huge opposition from within Russia to these developments. And I think they have been mistaken, since the population generally supports Moscow's policy. For example, general public support of President Putin is constantly above 75%, which is really significant. And it's clear that the West did not calculate too far ahead, to actually understand how its sanctions would boomerang back to their own economies.

The West was also mistaken in its estimates about the eagerness of Russia to play on this battlefield, which turned out to be unexpected. As everyone knows by now, Russia has moved to counter European sanctions by forcing Europeans to pay for gas and other energy resources in Ruble, which eventually led to its significant growth, so much so that it’s now one of the leading growing national currencies. And even though the West froze some of the Russian financial assets, Russia has reciprocally frozen some of the Western assets on its own territory, which costs a really significant amount.

So it's a game that two can play. It's clear how European nations are currently screaming, saying to Russia, “Please sell us your gas, even though we generally want to stop buying it.” And Russia is saying, “So if you want to stop buying it, maybe now is the time.” The reactions by Western governments and media is fascinating, how they are considering now stopping the plan of going green and developing ideas like, “Maybe we should use wood to provide heat for our households.” That means that they didn't think how this will work out in the long run, and it’s an absolutely tremendous mistake on their part.

Q: Do you think that Europeans, in the long run, will have to cut deals with Russia on energy and other resources?

I think they will be forced to do so if they are not suicidal. It is really painful picture for them to see how governments in different countries are currently collapsing, like the Italian government being the most obvious example, even though some others, like the German government, have some months in store. But the closer the winter, the worse the situation will become. In my opinion, Russia would not be running toward reaching this sort of agreements, as it would be very reluctant to speak on the terms, until it would decisively reach its own goals in Ukraine. Therefore, the problem for Europeans is that they thought that time is on their side.

Q: But it is not.

But it is not.

Q: Let’s take a wider global look at the matter. China is not playing along with the Western sanctions, nor is India. These two countries are important because they are economic powerhouses in Asia. Many other countries also decided not to side with the West. Do you think this combination of countries – Russia, China, India, Iran, and others – can form some sort of united front against the West in light of the events?

Well, it's not clear if it will be a united front. But it's clear that most of those countries do not submit to the Western dictates. In the West, they wanted to re-implement the practices of neo-colonial periods when they tried to force India to submit to the sanctions and pressed China to do something that's not in China's interest.

And here, I'm not speaking about Iran, which is very independent, playing its own role for decades now. Or even Turkey that, despite being part of NATO, and thus in a very particular position, is not sanctioning Russia, but rather serves as a platform for diplomatic engagement between the parties, and is also a benefactor of this crisis, in trade, in logistics, in energy, with Istanbul airport being currently number one in the world in terms of everyday traffic. Interestingly, Turkey is supplying Ukraine with expensive weapons, and there are rumors that maybe Turkey would be also willing to produce those weapons on Russian territory, which is an absolutely fascinating scenario, and you cannot imagine this type of diplomatic maneuver from any country in Europe.

So, to answer your question, I don't think that it would be a united front, but we will have a much more polycentric or multipolar system in the end of this crisis. And all of the countries would use this crisis to try to prepare significant leverage in their relations with the West. And that would be one of the unlikely outcomes of this crisis.

Q: Finally, how do you see the role that Iran has to play?

Since this crisis will affect Russia's position in the Middle East and all over the geography where Russia shares many interests with Iran, I think the current situation would be a very prominent ground for developing diplomatic cooperation between Russia and Iran, especially since Russia would now be much more focused on its partners and allies that have been in difficult positions in their relations with the West. Since Russia now is a much more sanctioned country compared to Iran, I think we will have much more in common and would probably be much more interlinked than before. This can turn out to be a very favorable development for both Iranian and Russian economies, for example in terms of developing logistical infrastructure such as exploring the possibilities for railroads and Caspian Sea routes, and see where it will lead us. But one thing is clear: Russia would now be interested in powerful and independent autonomous Iran that is able to resist American pressure. And, I expect it to be a beginning of interesting and impactful relations for the coming decades, which would have a significant effect on global affairs, indeed.



Andrey Sushentsov os a political scientist and foreign relations expert specializing in the American studies. He is the dean of the School for International Relations at the prestigious MGIMO University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) and program director of the Valdai Club.



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