‘Putin was stopped stopped by the heroic attitude of the Ukrainians and the public opinion which acted against the governments of some western states‘ says Prof. Jacek CZAPUTOWICZ in the interview conducted by Mateusz M. KRAWCZYK.
Mateusz Krawczyk: It is generally said that Putin ‘has gone mad’. Is this an accurate diagnosis of the situation in Ukraine?
Prof. Jacek Czaputowicz: In theoretical analyses, it is assumed that states and their leaders are rational actors. This is how we should approach the present situation. Vladimir Putin’s decision to proceed with the invasion into Ukraine resulted from a specific strategy and calculation of potential profits and losses. There is one objective: to regain Russia’s imperial status. Putin has determined he has the opportunity to achieve this by attacking Ukraine.
– Did he really have grounds for such conclusions?
– In my view, there have been several circumstances to support this. First, Putin could have believed this is encouraged by the weak President of the United States. Withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan weakened the image of the US leader, and we can still remember the images from the Kabul airport in mid-2021. Second, Putin could have been convinced that the divided European Union would not constitute a major challenge to him. Third, he probably did not expect objections from the countries that had so far defended Russian’s position, interests, mutual economic cooperation, or operation of gas pipelines: Nord Stream I & Nord Stream II. These could have been Putin’s motives while making the decision about the invasion. Possibly, he misjudged the situation.
– Despite further sanctions, Russia continues its aggression into Ukraine. Doesn’t Putin account for the economic cost of war in progress?
– Russia expected that countries participating in decision-making about economic sanctions – also with respect of blocking the SWIFT mechanism for Russian banks – would not achieve an agreement. Furthermore, Putin had been preparing for the economic blow, creating a large financial reserve for this purpose. One can clearly see that, for him, reinstating Russia’s imperial position through incorporating a part of Ukraine into Russia or through appointment of a puppet government in Kyiv was a game worth the risk. Nowadays, however, Putin’s main problem is not the sanctions, but the Ukrainian resistance.
– This is much sounder than most expert centres had envisaged before the outbreak of the war.
– Some people in the West were convinced it was not worth helping Ukraine because it was on a lost position already, would fall soon with Putin controlling the situation quickly, installing a puppet government in Kyiv, occupying a part of Ukrainian territory, so they would be able to go back to regular business. He was, however, stopped by the heroic attitude of the Ukrainians and the public opinion which acted against the governments of some western states.
– Would Putin have liked a situation where, due to the aggression into Ukraine, he could build Russia as an empire which, although economically weak, would preserve its zone with the iron curtain on the Bug River?
– I don’t believe Putin would consider Western sanctions as weakening Russia. This country continues to keep its advantages, principally with regard to export of gas and other raw materials that many countries rely on. Moreover, Russia still has one of the strongest armies worldwide. Putin counted on being able to return to rather normal relations with the West after some time; just like it happened after 2014. This is what politicians from some European countries also thought for the first days of conflict. This brought a sharp response, among others, from the Chair of the European People’s Party who pointed out that Germany has dishonoured itself in this situation.
As the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs has rightly stated: if Germany had not been pursuing such a policy since 2008, possibly, we would not be having this war.
– Despite many discussions and intel, Russia’s invasion into Ukraine has surprised us. Why?
– Analysts, observers, and politicians look at the reality through their own mental framework. One can assume that if someone did not want an outbreak of the war, they might be looking for reasons and arguments, convincing themselves about it, and telling themselves that this is ‘impossible.’ We have been surprised. Yet the signals were clear, and the President of the United States cannot allow himself to make statements about a possibility of a war unless he has significant grounds to say so. American and British forces have often warned us of that possibility. Evacuation of people from occupied territories in Lugansk and Donbas was also symptomatic. One does not do that without a reason.
But the other surprise that seems to escape us is about the Ukrainian resistance. It was expected that the Ukrainians would surrender soon, and we would be able to go back to business, as before. Certain revaluations occurred in Germany, however, which is positive, and will have far-reaching consequences. Putin has lost the support of his informal allies who had so far defended some of his interests.
– Will this change be permanent? “Georgia today, Ukraine tomorrow, and perhaps the time will come for my country later as well,” as the late President Lech Kaczyński used to say. How much time do we have for such a scenario?
– Today, the West speaks Lech Kaczyński’s language. I hope this change will be permanent. The turning point is behind us already, as best proven by the speech of Chancellor Olaf Scholz of 27 February 2022. His statement was a result of major and quick revaluations. The very change of the German chancellor was also important. It can be interpreted in various ways, but Chancellor Angela Merkel and CDU significantly invested in Putin as a partner. I shall repeat after the Ukrainians: if not for Nord Stream I; if not for Nord Stream II, we would not be having this war. Only now have many politicians realised the threat Vladimir Putin poses to the international order.
– Aren’t you afraid that when the conflict ends, some leading European politicians will start to call for abolishing the sanctions?
– I would not like to speculate about the result of such decisions. In war, small causes bring major effects. The British estimate this war not to end soon. It must be noted that the United Kingdom has announced it has no intention to forbid its citizens to join international units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and to fight on Ukraine’s side. Intuition dictates a long and difficult conflict that will change our mentality even further. In my opinion, Putin has contributed to a permanent change in politics. We now need to face the challenge of Russia’s permanent isolation. And Putin shall not readily accept humiliation he is experiencing on the part of the Ukrainian Army and other countries.
– TIME Magazine has placed “The Return of History” on its cover. Can this ‘return of history’ be an opportunity to give new strength to international organisations, the UN, and the international order that was created in the last decades?
– The UN has existed only for several dozen years. As an organisation, it is rather new. War, however, as a feature of human relations, has been with us since the onset of humanity. For this reason, announcing the return of history seems right to me. The return to the policy of conflicts and force occurs when there is a change to the balance of powers. History can serve to draw conclusions as to the proper response. The United States must respond, just as Athens had to in the Peloponnesian War. If they do not respond appropriately and firmly, if they show weakness as in the case of withdrawal from Afghanistan, this will be a bad example for the others. At the same time, we can hear isolationist voices in the USA. Nowadays, the unity of the West is the most important matter.
– Will this change also involve the European Union? On 27th February, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, announced that the EU will refund the value of weapons handed to Ukraine.
– This is an important and good signal. To some extent, the European Union relieves the responsibility from its member states, although it is still the member states that hand over the weapons; the EU just refunds the cost. In this way, however, it provides a security umbrella to states such a Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It is much harder for Putin to attack 27 states than just one. One can see Europe’s determination to aid Ukraine. This is the strongest sign of our solidarity.
Prof. Jacek Czaputowicz