A Ukrainian armoured personnel carrier west of Kyiv on March 3, 2022 (Photo: Getty Images)
One of Britain’s foremost experts on Russian and European politics, Professor Richard Sakwa is also one of the most cited academics on post-Soviet era literature. Having penned books as stellar as The Putin Paradox; Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands;Russia Against the Rest; Deception: Russiagate and the New Cold War among several others, he is often cited by scholars of the standing of Noam Chomsky and Perry Anderson and iconic journalists like John Pilger among others. Sakwa has over time earned a great reputation as a prolific essayist often looked up to for comments on Soviet, post-Soviet and communist politics. A widely respected commentator on the West’s links with the former Soviet bloc, Sakwa has stirred hot debates thanks to an array of books that include The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union; Communism in Russia; Putin: Russia’s Choice; The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism and the Medvedev Succession; Putin and the Oligarch: The Khodorkovsky – Yukos Affair and so on.
In an interview to Open, he notes that the projection that Russian forces were trying to take over all of Ukraine is wrong. Russia does not need more territory, instead what it needs is security, he avers. Sakwa, whose work offers astute insights into the dynamics of the Cold War and its tragic return, regrets that no country in the world dares stand up and condemn the West’s duplicitous behaviour in geopolitics. The British author has for long argued that after the end of the Cold War, the West squandered away the opportunity to spread its liberalism and instead, out of arrogance, became expansionist militarily. The University of Kent professor warns of the consequences of such a policy: “It would be good to see the Non-Aligned Movement taking a stronger stand – if not, after Russia, it will be India and China in the firing line.” Sakwa, however, has no word of praise for the Russian invasion either. “It was a mistake,” the 69-year-old scholar points out.
A handful of American scholars have warned since the 1990s that the promise to offer a NATO membership to Ukraine will destabilise the region because Russia was going to be terribly upset with the move. They were proved right on February 24. Are you surprised about the Russian attack on Ukraine? Did you expect Putin to order low-intensity attacks and use of typical silent Russian plots to turn the tide in his favour?
Academics and critical American politicians were well aware of the dangers implicit in the promise for NATO membership for Ukraine – it crossed any number of Russia’s clearly-stated red lines. The coercive diplomacy had been ramping up since August 2021, and the diplomatic process associated with the two draft European security treaties of 17 December was not yet over. So, most observers (including Ukrainian President Zelensky) assumed that this process would continue indefinitely. This could have been accompanied by a pushback against the Ukrainian troops in the Donbass. In the end, we were all taken by surprise by the type of invasion launched by Russia on 24 February. It, as Talleyrand (the great French diplomat) stated, was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.
Double standards have been part of the structure of international politics since 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991
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Following the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, NATO didn’t show any signs of relenting even from the start. In the 1990s itself, it was accused of using civil wars in Yugoslavia to “reinvent itself” in a war that, again, was violative of international laws and the sovereignty of Yugoslavia. Which means NATO never wanted to stop expanding. It then gave wrong signs to Georgia and Ukraine in this century, about promises that it could not keep. Could these be ruses to provoke and push Russia, after all, to a war in which American interests never suffered, only those of the Ukrainians and European countries did?
An interesting argument – that the US effectively provoked Russia to fall into the trap of launching an unwinnable war, from which only the US (and China) will emerge with any benefit. This is an argument comparable to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 – effectively provoked by Zbigniew Brzezinski. There are indeed parallels. Once again, a small country is sacrificed to great power ambitions. The Ukrainian leadership was obviously foolish to fall for it.
Several Russia experts, including some scholars on Stalin, have blamed Vladimir Putin for being singularly responsible for the war in Ukraine. Aren’t they actually downplaying the encirclement of Russia by NATO, the overthrow of an elected government in Ukraine in 2014 and the suffering of Ukrainians in the eastern borders of Russia? What are your thoughts?
Indeed, like all conflicts, many factors combine to explain the origins of a war. To paraphrase Kissinger, blaming Putin for the war (of course it was his decision) is not convincing analysis – it is the substitute for serious analysis. There are structural factors, as well as short-term issues that have been accumulating since 2014.
A small country is sacrificed to great power ambitions. The Ukrainian leadership was obviously foolish to fall for it.
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Western columnists as well as whom we thought were serious academics are now talking about the need to safeguard “western values” in this war in Ukraine. They also want Russia to respect the UN charter that gives countries the right to decide their own foreign policies. But then the US has violated the UN charter on many occasions, including when it decided to invade Iraq under the pretext of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction in 2003 and dragging junior allies like the UK and others along. Its role in wars in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan also leave no trace of any “values” to be proud of. NATO is being accused of being not a defensive alliance, but global police taking orders from the US. What do you think are the ‘positives’ about these values? Also, can we ignore that the US was promoting their aims in Ukraine by backing what the West called the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, the Maidan Uprising of 2013-14 and the coup of 2014?
All that you say is accurate. Double standards are part of the structure of international politics since 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Geopolitics is tied up with a struggle of values, demeaning both.
Many US analysts continue to talk of the need for Russia and others to respect the UN charter. What about countries such as the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, Azerbaijan, Qatar and others, all of whom are aggressors? More than whataboutery, aren’t we seeing duplicity at work here?
As noted, this is even more than conscious duplicity – it is part of the character of post-Cold War international politics, and arises because of the failure to create a sustainable and inclusive European peace order after 1989. No country dares stand up and condemn the West’s behaviour. It would be good to see the Non-Aligned Movement taking a stronger stand – if not, after Russia, it will be India and China in the firing line.
Russia is a warning of what can happen to countries that resist. Hence the importance of a united front of the South
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There are even considerations in the US for reportedly imposing sanctions on India for the purchase of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia. The US is also unhappy with the prospects of India buying Russian oil. How naïve are such expectations of the Americans?
Not naïve at all – if India capitulates! There are voices in India (and China) who argue that it is in no country’s interests to resist, so perhaps best to bend with the Western wind; otherwise, the resisting country will be broken. Russia is a warning of what can happen to countries that resist. Hence the importance of a united front of the South.
Do you really think that the rest of the world has a clear idea on Russian military plans in Ukraine? Or are they still in the dark? Why do people run into the conclusion that Russia wanted to annex the whole of Ukraine?
It seems that Russian plans have changed. The idea of Russian forces trying to take over all of Ukraine was always wrong – it does not need more territory. What it needs is security.
What are your thoughts on the western mainstream media’s coverage of the Ukraine war so far?
What are the biggest US foreign policy mistakes as regards post-Soviet Russia?