My guest today is Wolfgang Sporrer, who is an Adjunct Professor at the Hertie School in Berlin. He used to be the head of the Human Dimension Department of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Kyiv, where he lead the civilian aspects of conflict management and facilitated and promoted dialogue between the opposing sides.
Before that, he was the head of the international oil and gas company OMV’s representation in the Caspian region, where he spearheaded regional efforts to promote the Southern Gas Corridor for the EU.
Previously, he served as the Head of the Europa House of the European Commission in Baku/Azerbaijan and as the Head of the Democratisation Department of the OSCE Presence in Albania. He also served as a political adviser in the EU delegation in Moscow and in several functions for the OSCE in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
He joined me to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Some of the topics we covered are:
- Wolfgang’s background in conflict zones
- Defining the conflict
- Inner Ukrainian tensions
- Ukraine/Russia bilateral relations
- East/West dimension
- Headlines vs. reality
- Irrationality of a possible Russian invasion
- Interests of President Biden and President Putin
- The absence of a united EU position on Russia
- A possible way out
- Challenges to overcome
Listen to the podcast here
Special Release: Wolfgang Sporrer – Providing Nuance To The Crisis In Ukraine
Here I am again for another insightful discussion on the ongoing tensions in Ukraine. As you will read, I spoke with a very knowledgeable and articulate expert who is widely recognised as having the ability to scratch below the mainstream narratives. This episode was made in the evening of Wednesday, the 2nd of February 2022, Australian time, which makes it the morning of Wednesday, the 2nd of February in Europe. I hope you get value out of this discussion.
My guest is Wolfgang Sporrer, who is an adjunct professor at the Hertie School in Berlin. He used to be the Head of the Human Dimension Department of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Kyiv, where he led the civilian aspect of conflict management and facilitated and promoted dialogue between the opposing sites.
Before that, he was the Head of the international oil and gas company OMV’s representation in the Caspian region, where he spearheaded regional efforts to promote the Southern Gas Corridor for the EU. He served as the Head of the Europa House for the European Commission in Baku, Azerbaijan and as the Head of the Democratisation Department of the OSCE presence in Albania. He also served as a political advisor in the EU delegation in Moscow and in several functions for the OSCE in Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Kosovo. He joined me to discuss the ongoing situation in Ukraine. Wolfgang, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
Thank you for the invitation.
You have had quite an extensive career in a number of war zones. Maybe we can start by finding out a little bit about you. How did you end up in this particular line of work, and then how did you land in peace negotiations for the OSCE?
I studied Law at Vienna University, and then I followed this up with a degree in International Relations at Johns Hopkins in Bologna, where I met a colourful and great crowd of people. After which, I wanted to work somehow internationally. I didn’t have a big idea of what this would mean and what one needs to do. I called my forum ministry and asked them whether they would second me to the OSCE as a dishwasher. The organisation was a lot in the media at the time and so on, and they said, “Without experience, we are not going to second you anywhere. You need to get some experience first.” As it usually is, without experience, you can get experience.
It was a little difficult. One day, the foreign ministry called me up, and that was in the year 1998 when there was a civil war in Albania and said, “We have an opportunity there for you as an election observer in Albania,” which is where they were actively shooting. It was in the media every day. The situation was a complete disaster, so they had probably called everybody on their list and I was somewhere near the bottom.
After a little bit of thinking, I said, “That’s experience. That’s what it is.” I ended up going to Albania for a short mission. It was two weeks after which my Austrian foreign ministry said, “Where do you want to go next? We have Croatia or Bosnia for a long-term secondment to choose from.” That’s how I wouldn’t say ended up, but that’s how I joined the OSCE and the world of international organisations.
If I heard right, you are putting down your successful career to the fact that a whole bunch of people said no before you.
You have to do a lot during this, but there has to be a beginning somewhere.
I note that you served with OSCE in both Bosnia and Croatia, as we mentioned before. I was born and raised in Sarajevo and deeply experienced that conflict. What work were you doing for OSCE in Bosnia?
I started out working as a field monitor for the OSCE mission in Croatia, and I was posted in a field office in the very beautiful town of Zadar. Whoever knows this region knows that while Zadar itself is a very beautiful and very cosmopolitan urban city with a lot of tourists, the hinterland of Zadar, when it goes up to the mountains, is a very different place. It’s a place where ethnic tensions were extremely high, where nationalism of all sorts was extremely intense.
At the time when I was there, it was 1999 or 2000. People were traumatised by the real post-war situation in which we were. That was in Croatia. I also ended up working for the OSCE in Sarajevo in the headquarters as a senior political advisor shortly after. I don’t know whether by chance or by design my boss, who was an American ambassador. I was responsible for Bosnian-Croat issues. I spent a lot of time travelling from Sarajevo to the so-called hectic Bosnia part, which encountered extremely strong nationalism. It is hard to encounter anywhere else. That was my experience in the Slavic part of former Yugoslavia, but I also worked in the Slavic majority part of Yugoslavia, to be precise.
I have also worked in Kosovo in Pristina, where my job was to work with the Serbian communities to convince them that potentially taking part in Kosovo elections was not a bad idea in 2000, 2001, and 2002. That’s already a very long time ago. I did work in Southeastern Europe in the Western Balkans. That also includes Albania, which is also a wonderful country to live and work in, but there’s always been the threat of conflict or post-conflict situations in which I operated.
The complexity of that region of Western Balkans, in particular, would have set you up well to then take on the role that you did working for OSCE in Ukraine. Maybe you can explain what that role means because I will let you explain what the title Human Dimension Department is.
The term Human Dimension is very OSCE-specific. It comes from the Helsinki Final Act, where security issues were divided into three so-called baskets. The Helsinki Final Act 1975 foundational document for European security defines security in a really broad way, whereas they call it the OSCE comprehensive way. Security is divided into three baskets.
The first basket is the political-military aspects. That means everything having to do with guns, soldiers, and classical old-school security. The second basket is called the economic environmental basket. That means everything has to do with economics and the environment. The third basket or dimension is the human dimension. The human dimension comprises everything from human rights, democracy, elections, minority issues, and anything that you would define.
The UN has a tiny bit of different terminology. They call the human security issues. In the OSCE, it’s called the human dimension, but it’s the human rights democracy, the soft parts of security. In Ukraine, what this entailed was mainly dealing with the civilian aspects or victims of the conflict. That means corroborating civilian casualties.
That means confirming or helping to repair critical infrastructure so that people would have water. They would have access to heating or gas, et cetera. Generally working with the affected communities to see what can be improved in actual human lives on the ground. This very much also included facilitating dialogue between the opposing sides.
This brings us very close to the conflict in Ukraine and the ongoing issues because it’s defining what the sides are in this conflict. It’s something that is done very often and wrongly. When I listen to the media, particularly American media, they say it’s a war between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. I have to touch my head and say, “From now on, stop listening because you haven’t understood anything about the situation in this country.”
That’s maybe a very good place to start because that’s one of the principal questions that I want to get into. Who are these stakeholders? What are the sides? You are right. The mainstream dialogue and narratives are so confused. We will get to that, but maybe we can start with that. Who are the parties?
Who are the parties in the Ukrainian context? I like to explain it as three concentric circles. This conflict has three dimensions. The first inner circle, which is likely the least important, is an intra-Ukrainian conflict. There are important differences between Ukrainians that run in various ways. First of all, you have the linguistic difference between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. That’s one aspect. You then have different historical views of Ukraine and what type of country Ukraine is. Is Ukraine a multicultural or multiethnic country? Is Ukraine a country for Ukrainians? You used to have a divided church, Kyiv Patriarchate and Moscow Patriarchate.
I also always say the best thing to know to spot these differences is if you ask a Ukrainian, “Did you Ukrainians win or lose World War II?” Society is not of one opinion of that. You will find many Ukrainians to go out on the 9th of May, proudly celebrating the victory over Hitler, and you will find many who will say, “That was the loss of our nation. That was the beginning of our occupation by Russia.” This all goes back to World War II.
As you probably know, one of the biggest, most controversial figures in Ukrainian history is a person called Stepan Bandera. For a small part of Ukrainians, he’s a real national hero in the centre of Lemberg or Lviv of Ukrainian or Russian. They erected a statue of Stepan Bandera. In the East of Ukraine, in Donetsk, and also in Kharkiv, Stepan Bandera is akin to a real historical villain. Somebody akin to Hitler like a full villain. Who was Bandera? He was a Ukrainian nationalist fighter who fought for the Ukrainian nation but also happened to ally himself with the Nazis, Hitler, and Germany because he thought he would get Ukrainian independence out of this.
This now makes sense why in the Security Council, the UN ambassador accused the West is promoting a Nazi regime, and maybe that’s the link that they are trying to invoke.
It’s the Russian narrative.
Even though Zelenskyy is Jewish, which I find bizarre.
That is the core Russian narrative. As with many narratives, it’s complex.
What is it with us Slavs?
On the Maidan in 2014, which was a grassroots movement where people were demonstrating for more democracy, more Europe, more freedom, or what people generally know about the Maidan. There were people running around and demonstrating with a picture of Stephan Bandera, this historical figure who was allied with the Nazis, which made it quite easy for the Russians to frame the narrative that these were all the people who supported the Nazis. This is the new Nazi regime. This is the Bandera regime. There is something behind everything. I was listening to banter, “Here we go again with the Russian.”
These are the divisions inside Ukraine. Not 100%, but largely. This is also East and West. That means in the West, you have Ukrainian-speaking people who would have a particular view of history. Many of whom would think that Ukraine did not win World War II and who have a positive to neutral review on Stepan Bandera who are looking mainly to Poland to the West and in the eastern part of the country.
Largely, it’s not a historic division. You have the people whom Stepan Bandera is a villain who would historically look to Russia for the next big country who are very proud of the role of Ukraine and Ukrainians in World War II, and who have that particular view of history. That’s the inner concentric circle.
I’m hearing echoes of Bosnia where the confusion between ethnicity and nationality played such a big role that defining yourself as a Serb in Bosnia dictates your affiliation to the East to Serbia or defining yourself as a Croat in Bosnia. Your loyalty is generally to the West to Zagreb. That was one of the issues that the Bosnian national identity was always diluted because of ethnic nationality. Is that something similar?
I will be very careful. We come to this to make this comparison because it could be very easily misleading, and I will tell you why. These inner Ukrainian divisions are something that you have in many other countries as well without a war and a conflict. These divisions have been there forever ever since there is an independent Ukraine for the past many years. It’s never led to war.
We have these divisions in Austria. The Western Austrians have a completely different dialect than we have. This is a small country. Politically, it looks different in Western Austria than in Eastern Austria. These divisions, in the case of Ukraine without Russian help, have not led to war. There was never a spark of a Ukrainian Civil War over language, ethnicity, Stepan Bandera, and over this and that.
The substance for conflict was there as it is there in many other countries. It needed the spark. In the case of the Ukrainian situation, it was more than a spark. It was a little bit like a flame thrower that ignited this substance. It was ignited by Russia. That’s very clear. Divisions, yes. The narratives are always interesting. When you ask a Ukrainian nationalist or patriot, you mention inner Ukrainian tension. They say, “No. We don’t have any tensions. This is not a civil war at all. No. Don’t. There’s nothing to see. Move on. It’s all Russia. It’s an attack from Russia from the outside.
When you ask the Russians, when you ask Mr Nebenzia, he said, “This is a Ukrainian Civil War. We have nothing to do with that. This is a Ukrainian matter. We are there. We are happy to mediate in this conflict between these parties, but that’s a Ukrainian Civil War.” The reality is a little bit closer to the Ukrainian than to the Russian position, but it would be lying to oneself if one would deny the existence of these historical inside Ukrainian society. We are only at the first circle. We are moving at a snail’s pace. It’s only the inner circle.
The second circle is a Russian-Ukrainian bilateral problem. Is the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine. That doesn’t need so much explanation. Russia needs Ukraine for the transit of pipelines and gas. They hate being dependent on Ukraine for that. That’s also why they did Nord Stream 2. They depend on Ukraine for many industrial issues like helicopter engines, but that’s one thing.
Russia needs Ukraine. Ukraine also used to need and still needs Russia. It’s hard to change geography. Ukraine is not an island. When you start playing with these mutual dependencies, play with a gas and transit issue, play with economic games here and there, that also fuels conflict. That can easily spark conflict. These are important things. Gas for Russia is so important. We will come to that idea. That’s the second dimension.
The third dimension is the East-West dimension. The East-West dimension is the one we are now seeing playing out. It was Brzezinski, the Security Advisor of Jimmy Carter, who said, “Without Ukraine, Russia is just a big country, and with Ukraine, it’s an empire.” You don’t need to know much more than that. When you look at NATO and the Americans moving into Ukraine. Joining Ukraine to NATO into the American sphere of influence is an ultimate goal and victory. It’s the forward patrol base of NATO. To have rockets and soldiers an hour’s drive from Moscow, that’s a Cold War Hawk’s dream.Without Ukraine, Russia is just a big country. With Ukraine, it is an empire. Click To Tweet
I’m mainly talking about the US. The European allies are a little bit more cautious here, but clearly, strategically Ukraine as the forward patrolling base for NATO is a huge strategic goal. The same goes for the Russian side. Russia thinks that it cannot allow that under any circumstances. They have historical experiences.
Napoleon came through these lands. Hitler came through these lands. They think that having an alliance that they perceive to be an enemy right there at that doorstep in their historical brother on which they are dependent in so many ways, is not acceptable. It’s a red line. Here we have the East-West dimension of this entire conundrum. To repeat, the Ukrainian conflict in a short ten-minute analysis. Three circles, inner circle, inner Ukrainian tension. The second circle, Russian-Ukrainian bilateral issues. The third circle, the East-West dimension playing out in Ukraine behind the conflict, if you ask me.
That’s a wonderfully visual way to represent the conflict as well. I thank you for that because that’s a very useful way and not one that we often hear. What strikes me as the grand narrative or the third circle of the East and West is the one that’s at play the hardest at the moment. We know also that even President Zelenskyy himself has said, “Nothing is new. Stop the war rhetoric.” Which is confusing. It strikes me that the third circle is the one that’s at play here, and my mind boggles because it almost seems surreal that that’s where we are. That we are in this cold, warm mentality of East-West time.
What you are saying is extremely pertinent. For me, this is also one of the most disturbing parts of the debate. The more the tensions rise, the less people talk about Ukraine. Ukraine doesn’t even seem to play a role anymore, as it used to be so many times in history upon between East and West, and this is sad. Zelenskyy’s position is extremely interesting because, in the beginning, Ukraine had an interest in playing this up because of the conflict in the East, which is ongoing. Whether it’s ongoing shooting every day. Read the reports of the OSCE. They are public everyday shootings.
This had a little bit vanished from the headlines. These people say, “This frozen conflict,” which it is not, but this had vanished a little bit from the headlines. Initially, Ukraine was rightly quite content that it was back in the headlines, that it was highlighted that Ukraine is a victim of Russian aggression, which it is. There is no question about it.
The conflict in the East, as I have said to you, would have never broken out without Russian ignition providing the spark. That was okay. Meanwhile, the discussion has become so surreal and so hysterical partially that the president of Ukraine says, “Don’t run away to Germany. Nothing has happened.” What had not happened for the past several years?
One thing that also is completely out of the headlines these days is that this Russian troop concentration that is now existing on the Ukrainian border is something that is not happening for the first time. It happened in the spring of 2021. It happened in June 2020. It had happened before the pandemic. This is not a first-time or particularly remarkable event.
Even at these numbers, the figure that is being thrown around is 130,000. They are being dragged from Siberia. That’s part of the narrative.
I would be very cautious when it comes to descriptions of what is happening and how many soldiers they have in what location. I will tell you why I would be cautious. Russia is not putting this information out. Russia does not say, “We have amassed 150,000 troops and they are there in case they haven’t said anything.”
The information that we have is in essence leaked intelligence. It’s intelligence that’s either transported to the media by politicians. Politicians have interests. There is nothing bad about it, but politicians have interests. Also, it’s done by leaked intelligence as many media say. “We have intelligence sources.” European bureaucrats are saying, “We get secret intelligence from here and there. We have been talking to these groups.”
This leaked intelligence can only be trusted in so far that one takes into account that whoever leaks that intelligence leaks politically curated intelligence. If you want to present a certain picture for your political narrative, you have intelligence, and you want to convince somebody, you are going to share the part of intelligence that you want out there and you are not going to hold back. This is completely normal, but you cannot trust numbers that come from politicians without any corroboration as a necessarily accurate picture, a reflection of reality.If you want to present a certain picture for your political narrative to convince somebody, you need to share the part of intelligence that you know and do not hold back. Click To Tweet
To be fair as well in that case, the Pentagon put out official statements saying that not only are there 130,000 troops amassed around Ukraine, but also that Russia now has the capability to invade the whole of Ukraine, which to me was preposterous. You might have heard my chat with your former colleague, who echoed the sentiment that invading the whole of Ukraine would require lots and lots more. What are your thoughts on that?
My thoughts on that are, does Russia have the capability to invade all of Ukraine? Yes. Does Germany have the capability to invade all of Austria? Yes. Does the US have the capability to invade all of Canada? Yes. That’s not the question. The question is, will they do it? Is there an interest for them to do it? Here I would caution and I would say that Putin so far has always been a rational actor in foreign policy, and Putin’s domestic policy is horrendous. What they have done with Navalny is a crime. The decline of human rights in Russia and free speech is an absolute disaster, but that does not take away from the fact that informed policy issues, he is not a good, benign, but irrational actor.
Invading Ukraine would be an irrational and extremely stupid thing to do. It would be stupid because they would face resistance. First of all, the war would be very bloody. Secondly, they would face an ongoing guerrilla war with the Ukrainian population, well-armed. Ongoing compared to which Chechnya was a cakewalk plus the West would be fuelling this situation with political support, weapons, and intelligence.
To invade, the whole of Ukraine is a scenario that would be so dumb and so horrible. No one would profit from it. In light of the fact that Putin has been an irrational political actor, I do not regard this very lightly. The same goes for invading other parts of Ukraine. They have by all standards already invaded part of Ukraine, but to take this further would do the same I described on a smaller scale.
It would mean that whatever they do not occupy would join NATO more or less immediately, or without joining NATO would become a forward patrol base for America. They would face the same resistance from the local population wherever they go. That would be a very irrational move, and I hope my wish does not influence my rational thinking but both of them say, “No. It’s not going to happen.”
We are getting to the crux of it all because we can safely say that the inner circle of the three concentric circles is not influencing what’s happening. We can also say because that’s the status quo. That’s the ongoing Ukraine identity that’s still unfolding, and it’s an internal discussion. We can also probably say that the second one is the status quo. Nothing new.
This is all since 2014. The ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine aren’t new even to the point that since December 2021, nothing new has happened. We can also comfortably say that it is the third circle that we are talking about because it was in December when all this started when Putin put the demands forward to NATO, in other words, to the US. After all, in the eyes of Putin, also in reality, NATO is the US.
It is between two presidents, between the Russian Federation and the United States of America. That’s what this comes down to. Of Biden and Putin, what do you stand to gain from this crisis if we assume that both of them are, in one way or another, fuelling it? On one hand, Putin is, undoubtedly, the one who threw the letter in, saying, “These are my demands.” Throw the cat amongst the pigeons, as they say, but the US is ramping up the rhetoric of inevitable war and invasion. What drives these two leaders?
You are asking a question about the interests of the sides. Let’s look at the US side, which is a little bit easier to explain, but also murkier if that’s possible at this time. I can only think of a couple of reasons why the US is so active in ramping up tensions that even the Ukrainians are saying, “Leave us out of this.” It doesn’t matter anymore. The US media, it’s only about scenarios of how Russia invades via this river or ridge, which is all completely mad if you ask me. Why are they doing this?
As we all know, Biden is in a horrible situation. Biden is in a situation where he should have control of the Senate, which he does not. He has not gotten through two of his big political agendas. His popularity is low. In a very simplistic way, that’s usually what US presidents have done. When the domestic agenda looks bad, one focuses on a big international threat discussion where you can look tough or where you are in a big, leading position.
Also, the US credibility in international affairs has been damaged so badly by the withdrawal from Afghanistan. That was only the iteration of this damage. US image abroad has also been damaged badly by the diplomatic word for the betrayal of the Kurds in Northern Iraq. That got them in a place where many allies would think, “US as a friend is worthless because they let the allies down.” That may be another thing to say, “Now we need to stand up for ally Ukraine.” It has these two dimensions on the US side.
On the Russian side, as many things that have to do with Russia, it’s always a little bit more complex. The Russians think they have these security interests, which they put in the letter, the troops, NATO, and this and that, but they also have other interests. The Russians will look at this from a holistic perspective. There are parts of Russian demands and wishes that are in the letter. I’m not saying that these are pretend wishes. They are real wishes, but there are also other wishes and other interests that are not in the letter. We need to talk about gas exports, mainly about the Nord Stream 2. Russia has invested a lot of money into this pipeline. The pipeline is ready.
To clarify for my own sake, Nord Stream 2 is owned by Gazprom which is effectively a Russian state, if not owned, but it’s a very heavily influenced company.
The majority is owned by Russians. There have been political and regulatory problems in Europe why this gas pipeline is not starting yet. Many European countries have opposed this gas pipeline. Ukraine and Poland have opposed it strongly. Most European countries except Germany and Austria have had by now come out strongly against having this gas pipeline running. That was before this war talk.
There has been an interesting shift in rhetoric, and the shift of rhetoric has been as follows. Until the fall of 2021, shortly after the German elections, many people thought Nord Stream 2 was dead. Many thought, “Now we have the Greens. The government in Germany, the new Foreign Minister Baerbock, was very critical when she was not a foreign minister. People would have thought that there would not be a German commission to operate Nord Stream 2.” There’s European pressure. There’s strong US pressure.
Before we get too bogged into it, I want to ask a clarifying question because a lot of my readers might not be aware of why Nord Stream 2 was so sensitive. Particularly and if I’m correct, it’s very different for Ukraine and Poland to what it is for Western Europe for why the UK was against it. It might be worth clarifying that.
Nord Stream 2 is a gas pipeline that connects Russia directly with Germany through the sea. Up to this point, Russia was exporting its gas to Germany largely through Ukraine. Ukraine has a lot of transit fees. It had de facto control over how much Russia could export to its main customers in Germany. Russia decided to circumvent Ukraine and build a new pipeline to have direct deliveries of gas to Germany. This is why it split Europe into people who loved this pipeline because they were no longer dependent on unreliable transit countries.
That’s the second circle. People say this is dangerous. It splits Europe. It hurts Ukraine. It increased the power of Russia over Europe. It makes Germany dependent on Russia. That’s what Russia wants. There have been US sanctions against this pipeline, which then have gone away. Biden has taken them back, but Trump has very strong US sanctions on the pipeline.
That pipeline was in trouble. Trump, US sanctions, German Greens, new government, split Europe, but the Russians want this pipeline. The new rhetoric, that’s the situation until October to November last 2021. Now, new rhetoric coming out from Europe is repeated by the United States. If Russia attacks Ukraine, there will be no Nord Stream 2. What does the reverse conclusion mean from that? It means that if there is no invasion, there will be no Nord Stream 2.
It’s conditional. It’s an if/then condition. If invasion, no Nord Stream, and then if you flip it, if no invasion, then Nord Stream 2.
There are people who say, “If that’s what it takes to appease the Russians but to have a pipeline that generally makes a lot of sense.” At the end of the day, I’m not going to go into these debates. It’s a long debate. I worked in the gas industry, so I may be a little bit biased. From an economic perspective, it makes sense.
To double tap on that to make that clear, it wouldn’t be just Germany that benefits from Nord Stream 2. It’s the majority of the EU countries that would, to some extent, less and more benefit from it.
The benefit is a dangerous word. Who knows who benefits? Who would receive gas from Nord Stream 2? There’s already a value judgment in benefits. We know it wouldn’t be just Germany. We have Austria and Eastern Europe very much. That’s true. This is an interesting aspect. I will also point you to an interesting aspect of Russian foreign policy.
If you go back over the last several years, particularly since Mr Lavrov has been foreign minister, there is a pattern recognisable to ramping up tensions, making threats horrible, and then climbing down one step and being rewarded for it for being constructive and reasonable. You ramp up tensions, make threats, make everything unstable and horrible, and then you climb down one step, and you get rewarded with some concessions here, there, and somewhere else. I would not exclude that this is at least part of the Russian scenario on how they look at things at the moment.
That is straight out of the tool book or the rule book of Trump, or maybe it’s an authoritarian bent toward that it’s threaten and threaten. Whatever you can secure after that is better than what you started with.
We can recite examples from Russian policy in that regard. That’s one possibility. I’m not saying I’m speaking the absolute truth. We are here to chat and to give you my best thinking and I benefit. There is one reason why I think that I have something to say about this on occasion I have lived and worked in both Russia and Ukraine. I know the Russian narrative and the Ukrainian narrative from wonderful, good, and reasonable people on both sides. I know there is a toxic element to this quote, but there are good people on both sides in this.
As an ethnic Bosnian, I grew up with the shadow of the war hanging over me. A deep influence against the Serbs with the aggressors, and so on. Inevitably, that’s the politics, and that’s the narratives on both sides. There are good people fighting for what they believe is their truth. What do you make of President Putin? What ended up being his first public comment that he made standing next to his closest ally in NATO/EU Orbán? What do you make of his comments?
Some analysts are saying he was trying to almost appease, although he did very clearly state the response from the US to his demands completely avoided any acknowledgement of Russian perspective or fears, but he wants to continue talking. What do you make of those, given what you said about the Russian playbook?
They are not yet where they want to be, but they are somewhere along the way. That would be the best interpretation of this. Standing next to Orbán, it’s very clear that NATO is a particularly European union. It’s not united in its Russian policies. I want to make it very simplistic. There are two European wings on Europe versus Russia. The one wing says there is no peace without Russia in Europe. Therefore, we must be talking. Dialogue is the solution. Let’s find ways how we can get along because there is no peace without Russia.
This is a traditional Ostpolitik. They open the doors.
Ostpolitik is the view proclaimed by Germany, Austria, and big countries. It’s not an obscene view, and then you have the view that says with Russia, there can never be peace in Europe, and talking to Russia makes no sense because all they do is lie, cheat, and steal. We should stop talking to Russia because having peace with them is a hopeless endeavour.
These are Poland politics depending on the government and some others. I’m paraphrasing this so nobody says it. To reconcile these two positions is very difficult. Therefore, there is no proper Russian policy in the European Union, as we have seen already. Croatian president said, “In case there is a war, Croatian soldiers would not participate.” For whom I have no respect in other fields. Going to Moscow, standing next to Putin, that dividing the European Union is a strategic goal of Russia’s foreign policy is very clear. They are very well succeeding at that.
Hungary is an EU member and a NATO member. You couldn’t get a more powerful symbol of effectively your tactical success because it is tactical from a very small perspective.
That’s that. It was also very clear from Putin’s statements that he did not want to communicate that he would attack Ukraine in 24 hours. In diplomacy, what you say publicly and privately is always different. Whatever you say publicly, it was very well-curated to arrive to make us ask exactly these questions.
Going back to the centric circles because I’m a visual learner, and that, to me, works well. I can see the circles in my head. It strikes me as there needs to be some circle that’s nudging from the outside into, and maybe through the outer one into the second one, which is Europe and European issues. We are seeing a resurgence of the UK that’s become very vocal. It’s almost demanding that Europe respond.
It’s been sending weapons from the first moment this erupted. We are seeing Macron standing up. He’s got an election. He’s standing up. He wants to be the leader of Europe. He wants to make his European solution. How do you see this playing out? It seems to me that all these big European countries are all in one way. I remember that Johnson had a call with Putin. Mario Draghi had a call with him.
I’m sure that Mr Putin will very much love the fact that he gets called by all these European leaders who have these little bilateral discussions with him and not one line to a united Europe. This is the dream of Russian foreign policy. The curator messages nicely what he says to Johnson, Macron, Draghi, and Scholz. Here we go.Vladimir Putin will very much love that he gets called by European leaders who have little bilateral discussions with him. This is the dream of Russian foreign policy. Click To Tweet
That speaks to the point that there’s no united European or EU foreign policy.
On the British position, the US front has to be careful to say that it’s only to detract from domestic problems. When you think about Boris Johnson, it’s, in my opinion, very obvious that he wants to distract from the disastrous situation he’s in in the House of Commons with his partner. Here we go of this, but when you talk about the concentric circles, I would like to remind you of another image that we talked about, and these are the three baskets of the OSCE Helsinki Final Act.
When Russia says they have security concerns, it means they may only talk about the first basket, the weapons and the soldiers. What they probably have is security concerns in all three baskets, particularly in the economic and environmental. We talked about that. When you look at the Russian rhetoric, very interestingly, Russia continues talking about the OSCE. Lavrov spoke about the OSCE. “We need the OSCE.” The indivisibility of security.
I talked in the beginning about the comprehensive concept of security. Lavrov has invoked the indivisibility of security. The question is, how do we get out of this conundrum? It’s very difficult. Once you have ramped up these tensions to climb down again, the American will say, “Sorry. We were wrong. There was no imminent invasion.” Since November 2021, the invasion has been imminent, which is very strange.
One way out would be to have a security conference for Europe that has as its goal to find a security architecture which makes everybody feel secure. That means Russia needs to feel secure, but Ukraine needs to feel secure, and the West needs to feel secure. There is only one organisation that seems predestined to do this, and this is the OSCE.
That strikes me as a reasonable demand and request. Is it not?
To have a conference like that is a reasonable demand and a reasonable request. The question is if enough parties see enough interest or have enough interest in having such a conference. Having a conference and talks, as Churchill said, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” If that’s the way out where people can discuss in a long process, why not in a long process to discuss European security including economic connectivity, i.e., gas, human rights, weapons and soldiers? That would be a good solution for this.
The irony of this would also be another one if something like that happens. If you look up the history of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, the birth of comprehensive security, it was in essence an opportunity, a forum in which to talk about human rights with the Soviet Union. That’s why of all these Helsinki commissions, Helsinki chart, and Helsinki this and that, for the first time, the Soviet Union agreed to talk with the West about human rights in exchange that the West would talk with them about weapons, soldiers, tanks, and atomic weapons.
We can see something here. That would be also quite interesting. If we say, “If you want to talk concretely about security, let’s talk about human rights, Navalny, and elections. Let’s talk about this.” I’m a little bit idealistic here and maybe not very realistic. If you want to look for a constructive way out, if you want to have some quality, that would be the way to move forward. When I’m saying this could be a long-term process, let us also recall that Mr Putin is not a young man anymore. This process could outlast Mr Putin. The Helsinki process lasted a couple of years. That is something I could say. That would be one way to get out of this difficult situation at the moment.
The only piece to that is that the US doesn’t necessarily sit at home if it’s headed by the OSCE.
The US is a member of the OSCE, and so is Russia. To have a conference and a forum in which the parties and the partners could meet each other at the same eye level is not necessarily bad. What is also important in this context is that Europe, the European Union, and Western Europe will have a position. I do think that European interests in Pan-European security are not necessarily 100% overlapping with US interests in Pan-Europeans.
That means there should be a European-led design. They are largely overlapping but not 100% overlapping. There should be a European-led design of European security policy that is not necessarily 100% dictated by the United States. I will go one step further. The role that Ukraine plays in such a European security architecture needs to make everybody feel secure, including Ukraine and Russia.
My question would be, does Putin have a leg to stand on when he makes the demands and claims that he makes? What he’s also saying is that while it’s okay for a country, speaking about Ukraine, to choose its security arrangements, what the West is professing is why the West can’t say Ukraine will never join NATO.
Putin is also saying, “That’s fine,” but a country can’t guarantee that it will improve its security at the cost of another country. Looking at it pragmatically, that seems like a reasonable statement to make, notwithstanding that this is Putin we are talking about, who has proven to be a rogue actor at times. He’s pushing for Russian interests. He’s an irrational actor, but without a doubt, he’s invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
We are not talking about a peace-loving man. We are talking about a pragmatist who will exploit opportunities. How credible are his claims, and then how credible is it that if he does secure some smaller victories from the US, he backs down as opposed to continuing slowly disintegrating the European Union, which he’s doing rather well?
When you started your question by asking, “Does Putin have a leg to stand on?” that depends on what he wants. We all don’t know what he wants. I have speculated about this. I have mentioned a couple of topics dividing Europe, getting Nord Stream 2, and asserting itself as a great power. I’m sure there is a mixture of this that he wants, but we don’t know exactly what he wants and what is enough. What’s that’s just good enough to back down. Because we don’t know that, we don’t know whether he has a leg to stand on. If you don’t know what’s good enough for him or what he wants to achieve, it’s hard to say. What I can say a little bit, in conclusion, is that it has to do with European security architecture.
It’s very important, and this is one of the OSCE principles that no country can increase its security at the cost of another country. This is a different way to say that we need European security architecture where every participant feels secure, and that goes for Russia and Ukraine. What we cannot do is say as the West, “Russia, you should feel secure enough. We have determined that you are secured,” but we can also not do that with Ukraine.
This is very popular where I come from. Many people would be saying, “Why doesn’t Ukraine choose neutrality like Austria? It would be so great. All the problems would be solved.” It’s because the majority of Ukrainians would not feel secure if they chose neutrality. Their neutrality has been violated. Their trust has been broken. To find a new arrangement where everybody in their conviction, not in the conviction of others, feel secure, that’s the challenge that we have to overcome now and that’s also how we will get out of this conundrum that we have at the moment between Russia and the West.Many people wonder why Ukraine doesn’t choose neutrality. It's because the majority of Ukrainians would not feel secure if they chose neutrality. Their neutrality has been violated. Click To Tweet
That is hugely insightful. That answered a lot of my questions because one of the things that Putin is being attacked on is, he’s trying to increase his sphere of influence, but you made the point right at the start. He’s also talking about NATO’s sphere of influence, but in reality, it’s not even NATO. It’s the US. We all know NATO is led by the US, and NATO is the US in many ways. Even though Ukraine was nowhere near joining NATO in any near future whispers or talks of that, or leading towards Europe is certainly going to add fuel to that fire. It’s been fantastic. Very insightful conversation. Thank you very much for giving me so much of your time.