International conflicts and crises are extremely complex phenomena and – at least from the “outside” – they should be analysed in the least biased way possible. This is not always easy to achieve, in part because Western media and expert debates often fail to include local voices, different sensitivities and less mainstream views. The Ukraine crisis is no exception. Some crucial points are taken for granted in the Western discourse, but they are still contested realities and should be framed carefully. Should NATO welcome Ukraine’s membership? Is the country witnessing a civil war or an invasion? What does Putin want to achieve in its neighbourhood and vis-à-vis the West? How key is the energy issue? And where does Europe really stand?
This focus wants to focus readers’ attention on five – among many – critical issues underlying the debate on the situation in Ukraine and gives voice to two experts arguing against or in favour of each point. This is not fact-checking effort, but rather an attempt to provide two antithetical yet informed opinions on the issues at hand to facilitate a broader and more sensible discussion.
1. Should NATO negotiate Ukraine’s membership aspirations with Russia?
One of the core disagreements around Ukraine – to some, the Gordian knot of this crisis – revolves around NATO’s open-door policy and the possibility of Ukraine’s membership. Here there are two main camps: one defending Ukraine’s membership aspirations regardless of its actual chances of joining NATO, and one promoting flexibility to stop the escalation and avoid war. This debate transcends national borders as it touches on the limits of a country’s right to self-determination and the basic perimeter of Russia-Western relations. It is also connected to the larger debate on the alleged Western promise to Russia that NATO wouldn't expand eastwards. While no formal agreement was signed in this regard, it is worth noting that, according to declassified documents, Western leaders gave informal security assurances against NATO expansion to Mikhail Gorbacev and other Soviet politicians. Hence, perceptions also contribute to complicating this issue.
“Moscow's alleged worries about the effects of a Ukrainian NATO membership [...] cannot be taken seriously in the nuclear age"
Andreas Umland, Analyst, Swedish Institute of International Affairs
“Russia does ask for a general NATO policy reversal, but primarily for a withdrawal of the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration promise that Ukraine and Georgia “will become” members of NATO. To withdraw this promise either officially or informally is not advisable for three reasons:
- If NATO representatives – either at the alliance or the national level - start signalling to Moscow that the 2008 promise was not meant seriously, this begs the question of how seriously other NATO documents should be taken. Perhaps, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is not meant to fully cover Narva in Estonia – the most Russian city outside Russia? Who would know for sure?
- In Article 11 of its 1994 Constitution, Moldova ruled out NATO membership. However, this approach neither led to the full withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova nor to the disappearance of the Moscow-supported pseudo-state in Transnistria, as Chisinau has been requesting for 30 years. This has been a lesson for Ukraine and should be one for the West.
- Moscow’s alleged worries about the effects of a Ukrainian NATO membership for the Russian state cannot be taken seriously in the nuclear age. Not only does Ukraine lack a Membership Action Plan, but Russia has more nuclear warheads than all of NATO. The apparent panic in the Kremlin about an imminent security deficit for Russia is simply a staged theatre show for receptive domestic and international audiences.
Moscow’s blackmail should be answered by counter-pressure. The small Russian economy is deeply integrated into the world economy. There is a multitude of non-military means that should be used to contain Russia.”
Zachary Paikin, Researcher, Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS)
“As long as it remains mired in a territorial dispute – especially one featuring a hot war rather than a frozen conflict – Ukraine cannot be admitted to NATO. This would threaten to put the Alliance directly in conflict with Russian forces. At the same time, any peaceful resolution to the Donbas conflict would necessarily involve granting a high degree of autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which would prevent Kyiv from pursuing a Western geopolitical orientation. So there is no scenario in which Ukraine joining NATO is a realistic proposition.
There is also the question of NATO's open-door principle: the idea that Ukraine's membership is exclusively for Ukraine and NATO's existing members to decide and that no third country should be able to exert a veto. However, whether we like it or not, Russia believes that it does possess a veto. The continued modernisation of the Ukrainian military may lead to it being able to inflict damage and cause strategic headaches for Russia in the future. And having redrawn the borders of Yugoslavia and pushed through regime change in Libya, Moscow has little reason to view NATO as a purely defensive alliance. If Moscow proves unable to exert its veto through diplomatic means, then it will choose to exert it in a less pleasant fashion.
It therefore makes little sense to risk a war with Russia over the principle of Ukraine's "right to choose", especially given that (a) such a war would come at the expense of Ukraine's independence and (b) there does not exist sufficient appetite within NATO to admit Ukraine as a member anyways. The 1990 Paris Charter, adopted when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, is often cited as the source of European countries' right to make their own security arrangements. But the Charter also speaks of the indivisibility of pan-European security. There is simply no scenario short of collective security architecture from Lisbon to Vladivostok in which Ukraine's admission to NATO enhances the stability of the Euro-Atlantic region.”
2. What we see in Ukraine is essentially a civil war?
Over eight years into the conflict, there is still no consensus on what to call the crisis in Ukraine. Russian officials and analysts usually call it a civil war. Representatives of the US and Ukrainian governments claim it is a Russian invasion instead. Western scholars such as Jesse Driscoll look for a “middle ground”, claiming that “invasion and civil war are not mutually exclusive terms in academic parlance”. This discussion, however, goes far beyond academic debates and has implications on perceptions of the conflict’s root causes and possible solutions.
“Denying the real local potential for conflict […] won’t help achieve a long-lasting peace in the country”
Oleg Barabanov. Programme Director, Valdai Discussion Club
“External influences matter significantly in the current conflict in Ukraine. However, this does not mean that there are no elements of a civil war.
First, there has been a stark east-west divide throughout Ukraine’s independence, starting in 1991, and evident in all of the elections that took place in the country before 2014. Without delving into the historical and social reasons for this, we have two different identities in contemporary Ukrainian society, with two different sets of historical and cultural values, and two different political strategies (pro-EU vs. pro-Russian). Taking into consideration the lack of meaningful political efforts for cohesion over the last 20 years and the high level of mutual disdain between the two groups, the potential for civil war within Ukrainian society has always been high.
Second, the lack of governmental control on arms depots during the last months of the Yanukovich presidency and its immediate aftermath made it very easy to obtain for various non-governmental groups (first in the West, and later in the East) to obtain weapons. Armed clashes between those non-governmental groups and the formation of various non-official militias on both sides began just as the conflict was arising. The activities of the Igor Strelkov/Girkin group in 2014 have not lessened the local militias’ military preparedness and participation in the combat.
It is difficult to draw a clear line between a ‘pure’ civil war and a ‘pure’ external intervention in today’s contemporary military conflicts, where both local/civil and external elements often coexist. Was the Vietnam War only the result of US intervention? Or was the Angolan conflict in the 1970s and- ‘80s only a product of Soviet/Cuban intervention? Soviet historical terminology referred to the conflict in Russia in 1918-1920 as a ‘civil war and foreign intervention’. Maybe it would be methodologically better to use these terms together for this conflict as well, instead of in contraposition. Of course, Moscow officially denies Russian intervention in the conflict in Ukraine, while Kyiv officially claims the contrary. But denying the real local potential for conflict in light of the two clashing identities within Ukraine’s divided society won’t help achieve a long-lasting peace in the country.”
Kateryna Zarembo, Associate Fellow, New Europe Center, Kyiv
“It surprises me that after eight years of the ongoing Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine some still consider it a civil conflict. I am ready to provide the counterarguments.
To begin with, there have never been any separatist sentiments in Donbas. In the 1991 referendum on Ukraine’s independence, 83% of the Donetsk and Luhank oblast (region) voted in favour. For years sociologists have also considered the protest potential in the region to be low.
The most important question to ask is who were the protesters? The “DNR” and “LNR” leaders Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Arsen Pavlov, Alexandr Borodai, Igor Bezler and many others are Russian citizens: Girkin and Pavlov, for example, used to serve in the Russian army; Alexandr Borodai currently is a member of the Russian parliament. It has also been observed that the weapons used by the so-called “separatists” have Russian origins and have never been used by the Ukrainian army (which would instead be the case in a civil conflict). The international Joint Investigation team ruled that the “BUK” rocket which downed Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 was brought in from Russia.
Importantly, the currency in “DNR” and “LNR” is the Russian ruble. In 2019 Russia started issuing Russian passports to the residents of the so-called “republics”. As a matter of fact, no UN member state, including Russia, has recognised the republics. Meanwhile, the international community, including the EU, G7, OSCE, etc, repeatedly confirmed the Russian presence in eastern Ukraine.
Last but not least – the narrative about a civil war emanates from Russia and not from Ukraine, as would instead be expected in a civil conflict. Isn’t this yet more proof of the true nature of the conflict?”
3. Does Putin want to recreate an ‘empire’ in the region?
“Back in the USSR”; “Czar Putin wants a new age of empires”; “The (Russian) Empire Strikes Back”; “Putin’s desire for a new Russian empire won’t stop with Ukraine”. There is no shortage of articles in the Western media and think tanks hinting at the Kremlin’s desire to reinstate an empire in the region. However, are these historical analogies accurate? Is Russia pursuing an expansionist revanchist policy to restore “Russian greatness” or does it only aim to counter NATO and Western influence to defend its security interests, as Moscow claims?
“[An empire] serves Putin's main objective: to cling to power and to preserve the kleptocratic regime he built in Russia at all costs”
Olga Tokariuk, Non-resident Fellow, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
“Yes, but mainly because it serves Putin’s main objective: to cling to power and to preserve the kleptocratic regime he built in Russia at all costs. He sees neighbouring states, which were once in the Russian orbit but are now becoming increasingly democratic, as an existential threat. Thus, they need to be subjugated, one way or another.
Ukraine, despite the aggression launched by Russia in 2014, has shown quite some progress in terms of reforms, the fight against corruption, economic growth and strengthening democratic institutions. It has a vibrant civil society, free elections, a diverse media landscape, and freedom of assembly: all things Putin fears and which he has crushed in Russia since coming to power. The Kremlin failed in its attempts to exercise control over Ukraine, as pro-Russian politicians now enjoy just a fraction of the support and influence they used to have before war. This irritates Putin, and it scares him, too.
It looks like Putin, having failed to achieve his goals by other means, decided that coercion by military force is the only way to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit. The aim of ‘rebuilding a Russian or USSR-like empire’ helps to galvanise support from Russian society, but is not a goal in itself. That Putin’s views of Ukraine are imperialistic is undeniable: he sees it as an artificial state and denies its sovereignty. In Putin’s eyes, Ukrainians are unruly little ‘brothers’ – or rather ‘sisters’ – who are threatening to destroy ‘the big family’ with their rebellious actions, and who need to be brought back into line. And if that fails, an ‘honour killing’ is an option, too.”
Glenn Diesen, Professor, University of South-Eastern Norway
“Historical analogies can add value when current events are placed in a wider historical context, although false historical analogies can be used to deceive. Russia has neither the capacity nor intention to restore a Soviet-like empire.
The false analogy enables the West to present an artificial binary option of either expanding NATO or accepting Russian spheres of influence. In reality, Russia was supportive of Yanukovich establishing Ukraine as a neutral state, while the Western powers pursued exclusive spheres of influence by demanding that Ukraine make a civilisational choice. Hillary Clinton also justified aggressive US policies, such as sabotaging the Eurasian Economic Union, by suggesting it was “a move to re-Sovietise the region”.
The Soviet analogy infers that Russia is a revisionist and expansionist power. However, it was an unconstrained NATO that became a revisionist power after the Cold War by expanding and abandoning its status as a defensive alliance.
As the weaker side, Russia has become a status-quo power. In 2008, the Soviet hypothesis implied that Russia would invade all of Georgia. Instead, Russia cemented its existing position by merely reversing the Georgian offensive into South Ossetia. In 2014, Russian troops were yet again expected to restore the Soviet empire by conquering Ukraine. Instead, Russia acted as a status quo power by securing its existing position in Crimea and supporting Donbas to prevent NATO expansionism. In 2015, Russia intervened in Syria to prevent the West’s regime change and shore up its existing position. In 2022, Russian troops preserved the status quo in Kazakhstan and were already preparing to leave when the same Western pundits accused Russia of “invading”.”
4. Should we sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline?
The Nord Stream 2 (NS2) has increasingly turned into the "pipeline of discord". NS2 is supposed to bring Russian gas directly to Germany across the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine and depriving it of at least 3 billion in lost transit rights per year (7% of state revenues). While the pipeline is complete and awaits the final green light to begin its operations, many in Western and Ukrainian political circles would like to put the project on hold in light of the crisis, in part because it will increase European dependence on Russian gas. However, due precisely to Russia’s importance for the European gas market, such a move would carry high costs for European countries in the short and medium term.
Katja Yafimava, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies
“The new US draft law (Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act of 2022) mandates an imposition of sanctions in respect of ‘any entity established for or responsible for the planning, construction, or operation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or a successor entity’ and its corporate officers, in the event of ‘a significant escalation in hostilities or hostile action in or against Ukraine’. Despite its lukewarm attitude towards NS2, the EU has always been against US extraterritorial sanctions as infringing sovereignty and considered adding previous sanctions legislation to the Blocking Statute Regulation, prohibiting EU companies from complying with extraterritorial sanctions and stipulating a compensation mechanism. However, should the Ukrainian security situation deteriorate to the point of full-scale Russian military invasion, it would become extremely difficult politically for the EU – and Germany – not to come on board with the US. But doing so would create a significant problem for European gas security, both in terms of availability and price, as Russian gas flows to Europe would be limited by the amount of capacity available on the existing export corridors, with the likelihood that the Ukrainian corridor would become unavailable. This suggests that should the security situation remain tense but short of an invasion, Europe is unlikely to join the US in its sanctions drive and could be expected to proceed with NS2 regulatory approval, subject to its compliance with EU law. Delaying NS2 on grounds other than regulatory ones would only endanger Ukrainian security; indeed, if Russia were to perceive that NS2 will not be approved irrespective of whether it invades or not, the (supposed) value of NS2 as a deterrent would be minimal.”
Maria Shagina, Visiting Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA)
“As Western allies grapple over a potential sanctions package to deter Russia from a further invasion of Ukraine, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has come into the spotlight again. Over the past few years, the controversial pipeline has divided political parties within Germany, riven member states within the EU, and is straining transatlantic relations once again. As Washington threatens to impose sanctions of “massive consequences”, some argue that targeting the pipeline would not have much of an impact. It may well be true that sanctioning the pipeline would not be the key factor in inflicting economic pain on the Russian economy. However, the case of Nord Stream 2 goes beyond the purely economic dimension. First, the Kremlin is heavily invested in the project and is allegedly squeezing gas supplies to Europe to accelerate the certification process. Secondly, a robust signal from Berlin that it is no longer “business as usual” would be a watershed moment for German-Russian relations. Russia has been banking on Germany continuing its policy of compartmentalisation no matter what. However, insisting on keeping energy deals and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict separate would be politically damaging for the new government. As former German foreign minister Sigmal Garbiel put it, Nord Stream 2 would be a “great power tax” on the country that seeks to expand its influence at the expense of others. Finally, putting Nord Stream 2 into the “everything is on the table” mix would bolster a united Western response. Moscow has been adept at exploiting divisions within the Western alliance. The Biden administration bent over backwards to deflect pressure from the US Senate to use extraterritorial sanctions and Germany’s divided and mixed messaging is not helping.”
5. IS EU dialogue with Russia worth it?
This point speaks to the deep divisions within the EU on the correct Moscow policy. “Old Europeans” (Germany, Italy, France) are commonly described as more dialogue-prone towards Moscow, while “young” ones (i.e. countries that joined the EU during the “big bang enlargement” in 2004-2007) push for a more confrontational approach. In spring 2020, for instance, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel’s proposal for an EU-Russia summit was rebuffed by Poland and the Baltics. There are a few valid arguments calling for caution in resuming official and regular dialogue with Moscow; however, it is also true that dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean conceding and it remains the most immediate way to understand the other’s position and find ways out of the crisis.
Agnieszka Legucka, senior fellow, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)
“Russia usually takes advantage of the Western culture of dialogue. It builds tensions and crises, and conducts disinformation campaigns to get the best negotiating conditions. And it always ups the ante. On the other hand, the European Union, and the West more broadly, usually offer cooperation to ease tensions and lower pressure. But the West does not read Russia well. Last December, Russia issued a statement regarding its security guarantees. Russia is concerned not only about NATO enlargement to the East, but also about NATO military exercises and infrastructure. However, in Central and Eastern Europe, there is a military asymmetry military in Russia's favour. There is nothing to negotiate, the West must accept everything. This time Russia is not interested in a marathon of talks. If the West does not accept the Russian ultimatum, they will have to face “a military and technical alternative”. Russia has blackmailed the US, NATO, and the EU. In this situation, dialogue is pointless and is seen in Russia as a sign of weakness. The Russian authorities have manipulated the Russian public with propaganda in its confrontation with the West. Thanks to this, they are justifying the difficult economic situation and maintaining support for the country’s assertive foreign policy. The power elite in Russia fears, first and foremost, a colour revolution. When voices in the West claim that we should give Russia its sphere of influence or forget about democracy in Russia, the Kremlin knows that means business will be even better than usual. Dialogue cannot become a signal to Russian civil society that the EU accepts such behaviour.”
Kadri Liik, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
“Many Europeans consider dialogue itself a form of appeasement: until Russia does not correspond to European rules and norms, the logic goes, we should not reward it with dialogue. This is deeply flawed thinking: the past decade should have shown that withholding dialogue fails to change Russia’s behaviour. Furthermore, it even fails to stop dialogue: contacts happen anyway, just on a bilateral bases, or, worse still, by other powers: in this case, the US is discussing Europe’s security with Russians without notable input from the Europeans.
The Europeans should ask themselves what are their interests in the situation we have, and what is the leverage to defend them. The aims, one assumes, are to prevent or pre-empt Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine; and to uphold the European order based on the Paris Charter. Does refusing contacts with Moscow help to achieve that? Unlikely. Is it possible to shun, boycott and sanction Russia into accepting the OSCE rules and norms? Hardly. Can we prevent the US from talking with Moscow? No. Can we get a seat at the table? Probably not at the main table… as the most consequential talks happen between presidents Biden and Putin. But there are side-tables, such as for instance the Normandy format that is currently is being revived, with some US backing and buy-in.
The Europeans should aspire to first gain a good understanding of the true substance and modalities of the contacts between Moscow and Washington – there can be more to these talks than meets the eye. And then they should ask how they can have an impact on the outcome. Refusing all contacts and condemning the talks is hardly a good leverage here.”