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On the Ukrainian factor and geopolitical orthodoxies

British expert James SHERR: “What we can do is weaken Russia’s ability to harm others”
18 April, 2018 - 16:12
Photo by Oleksandr INDYCHYI

Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), Briton James Sherr is a very frequent visitor to Ukraine. He attends all the forums that discuss security issues and defense sector reform in Ukraine. The Day was able to communicate with the British expert on April 13 at the close of the 11th Kyiv Security Forum. For two days, experts had been actively discussing on its sidelines US President Donald Trump’s statement about the need to strike Syria because of the Assad regime once again using chemical weapons against rebels. So it was by asking how the West ought to solve the Syrian problem that we began the conversation with Sherr, which occurred before the US, France, and Britain launched strikes against chemical facilities in Syria late on April 13.


“The issue for the West is not to promote a particular outcome to the war in Syria. It is to demonstrate to Assad and to everyone else that the consequences of using chemical weapons will vastly outweigh any gain. Strikes that are simply symbolic will not do this, and one strike probably will not be enough. The strikes must deeply damage capability relevant to the production, storage, and delivery of such weapons. Fortunately, we agree that this requires a coordinated response from the US and its key European allies.

“It bears reiterating that throughout the Cold War, we were able to be confident that chemical weapons would not be used. The Soviet Union never would have allowed one of its clients to employ chemical weapons. Assad’s use of them is symptomatic of the erosion of the arms control regime that has been gathering pace in recent years.”


Let us now talk about Russia. Steven Pifer, who is a Senior Fellow at the US-based Brookings Institution’s Center on the US and Europe, stressed at a special discussion entitled “Alternatives: Results of Russia’s Quasi-Election,” that the West needed to find ways to force Russia to change its behavior, and one of these ways, in the opinion of the expert, is imposing sanctions and isolation on Russia. What do you think about this?

“We need to understand two things about Russia as it exists today. First, it has revived geopolitical orthodoxies that are at variance with the interests of Russia’s European neighbors and the West as a whole. Second, an external enemy is becoming endemic to the functioning of the system. As long as the current system of power is in place, I see no realistic chance that Russia will reconcile its interests with its neighbors or return to Western notions of ‘good behavior.’

“On top of this, Putin’s new presidential term is likely to be harsher and less predictable than those we have witnessed so far. The system he has constructed has become more difficult to manage and is under growing strain. It is not a dictatorship in the normal sense of the word. It is a neo-feudal system composed of overlapping baronial structures, founded on the merger of money and power and financed by rent-seeking and extortion. As imbalances in the economy become more serious and as capital resources shrink, intra-elite tensions are likely to become more stressful, and outbreaks of public discontent of the kind we recently saw in Kemerovo could become more frequent and intense.

“In several ways, the existence of an external enemy strengthens control. For example, the latest Western sanctions will have the effect of returning Russian capital to Russia: a cause dear to Putin who, in 2012, called capital export ‘unpatriotic.’ And if Russian capital is forced to remain in Russia, the independence of Russian capitalists diminishes.”


And how should the West act in such a case?

“The objective of Western policy cannot be to make Russia a nicer place. That exceeds our competence. What we can do is weaken Russia’s ability to harm others. We can maintain the integrity of our own institutions, strengthen our security (financial as well as military), and protect our allies and our way of life. In time, I am confident that members of the Russian elite will reassess the wisdom of today’s economic, political and geopolitical orthodoxies. But that could be a long time. We cannot make Western security hostage to developments inside Russia.”

Why, in your opinion, does the West, including key countries such as Germany and France, lack understanding of these trends in Russia, then?

“At least one political generation, perhaps two, have been raised on the orthodoxies of mutuality and partnership. Europe and European prosperity have bred a class of consensus-seeking and risk-averse elites, and the overriding preoccupations of European electorates have been social and economic betterment. Until recently, there has been very little comprehension of the resentments and ambitions that drive Russian policy, the tools and techniques designed to advance this policy and of the dangers it poses to others.”


But the UK seems to understand this well...

“It depends on who you mean. The present government does, by and large. But the instinct of many in the opposition parties and some portions of the electorate is to question the truth of anything the government says. Many on the left (and, after Trump’s election, not only on the left!) believe that the United States is at least as dangerous as Russia. The main point, though, is that skepticism and self-doubt are deeply engrained in our political culture, including the UK’s, and Russia is well aware of this.

“Take for example the poisoning of the Skripals: not only the Russians, but a number of British politicians, commentators, and instant experts are demanding ‘proof’ of Russia’s guilt. The first thing this demand ignores is the need to shield much of the hard evidence we have, because we need to protect intelligence methods and sources.

“The EU and our ‘Five Eyes’ Anglo-Saxon allies (Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand) have received detailed, reinforcing intelligence, including hard evidence that simply cannot be shared with you, me, parliament, the newspapers and, least of all, the Russians. It is this intelligence that persuaded a number of EU states to abandon their skepticism and support the British government. The second problem is the absurdity of demanding absolute ‘proof’ about matters that are so carefully concealed. We only discovered the scale of the Soviet chemical weapons program after the USSR collapsed, and still, more than 25 years later, there is much about it that we don’t know!”


You know well that Ukraine demands in various forums that the West provide it with lethal weapons. What do you think about this and what kind of military assistance from the UK can this country count on?

“The United Kingdom along with Canada and the United States play a very strong role in defensive measures here in Ukraine. And the only thing constraining us, in my view, from doing more is we don’t have the resources of the United States. I would still like to see the UK doing more. I think the West as a whole, not just the United States, needs to remove the taboo about supplying weapons to Ukraine. I don’t exaggerate the impact that this will have, because the deficiencies of the Ukrainian Armed Forces will not be solved by the weapons they want.

“The deficiencies stem from the fact that the army as a whole is not trained to conduct high-technology, mobile, combined-arms warfare which is where Russia’s strength lies. What they have learned how to do is to conduct largely positional warfare against Russian-commanded opolchenie in Donbas. This is largely a fixed, stationary conflict. If the Russians decide to escalate this conflict, Donbas becomes irrelevant, and however well-trained and motivated Ukraine’s forces are, in present form, they will not have the command, control and logistics they need to resist effectively. That’s what needs to be addressed. We can’t do it on our own, because Ukraine will not build operational-level efficiency without some major changes to the defense system and the operational level culture of the higher command of Ukrainian forces.”

During this forum, some politicians raised the issue of the Budapest Memorandum, the UK being one of its signatories, and proposed to develop it into a new document that would entail legal obligations. There are also proposals for signing a security pact between the UK and Ukraine. Can you comment on this?

“I am not going to pander to the Ukrainian addiction to signing new agreements and producing new documents. The changes needed here can only come about through political will, determined action, hard work, and the right people. There needs to be a refurbishment, a renewal of elites in every sphere, which demands bringing talented people out of NGOs into ministries and giving responsibility to people who have the competence and willingness to exercise it.”


What do you think about the Ukrainian authorities’ relations with their Russian counterparts and the fact that President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko stated in his April 12 speech at the Kyiv Security Forum that his government would harmonize sanctions against Russia with the US?

“Why is Ukraine harmonizing sanctions instead of initiating them? Ukraine is the country that has been invaded, not the United States. Why did these sanctions not appear here first? Why is Rossotrudichnestvo still operating in Ukraine? How is it that Russian business activity is expanding rather than disappearing? The sad fact is that, however impressive the official rhetoric might be, and despite the sacrifices of the country, private business interests and the integrity of patronage networks take precedence over national security. Today it is largely the Russian factor – the West’s well-founded interest in restraining Russia – that accounts for its support of Ukraine. But the Ukrainian factor – trust in Ukraine’s ability and determination – is diminishing. This is not a safe basis for continued Western support. Ukraine cannot expect the West to do more for Ukraine than Ukraine does itself. Yet that is the impression that many have created.”

During the abovementioned special discussion, one of the Ukrainian panelists said that Ukrainians had to be united and responsible in dealing with Russia. And what recipe can you offer?

“Ukraine will not be united until its leaders are responsible.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day