Ukrainian and Russia are raising the stakes.
Updated: Oct 13, 2022
Dr. Alina Nychyk gained her Doctorate at the University of Manchester and is currently a Ukraine Fellow at Research Center for the History of Transformations, at the University of Vienna. Her research interests focus on EU-Ukraine-Russia relations, Russian-Ukrainian war, foreign policy analysis and security in Europe. She works on her book “Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia and the EU: the case of the first year of the war (2014-2015).” Apart from academia, Alina also worked at EU institutions (European Commission and European Parliament) and in business (Hewlett Packard, Dreberis consulting, and Tenet). She is also a social activist, developing pro-bono projects for 10 years already. Now, she is an elected member of the board of the Association “Professional Government of Ukraine” (3 000 Alumni of the world best universities, who aim to build the best government in the world in Ukraine).
What is your view on the latest developments in Ukraine?
The situation gets both more interesting and more dangerous. Not being able to show any victories on the battlefield in Ukraine, Russia organised fake referendums and annexed parts of four Ukrainian regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson). Now, Russia sees them as Russian territory and Putin warned that he would be ready to use any means to protect Russia’s territory. This, however, did not stop Ukraine from continuation of its counter offensive in the South. In recent days, Ukrainians reoccupied some territories, which were previously hold by Russia. This, from a Russian perspective, was already an attack on Russia. Another interesting moment is that officially Russia annexed these regions in their Ukrainian borders, thus annexing parts of uncontrolled by Russia territories. Due to this, no one can tell precisely where Russian borders are now.
Do you think there is a likelihood of further escalation between Russia and Ukraine in light of the recent accident at the Kerch bridge?
Blasts on Kerch bridge, whether organised by Ukraine or not, is a huge humiliation to Russia and Putin personally. Kerch bridge was a major symbol of Russia’s ‘reunion’ with Crimea. However, we should not forget (and Ukrainian leadership may want to remind the EU) that the construction of the bridge was possible due to Dutch companies that violated sanctions and helped in this project.
What is further escalation? There is already a full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war with Russia attacking peaceful cities, bombing hospitals, schools, and theatres. The chemical weapon and forbidden cluster projectiles apparently have been already used by Russia in Ukraine. We see already increased Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and civilians. On 10th October, Russian launched more than 83 missiles into different cities of Ukraine. Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, was attacked with at least 5 missiles. The world saw horrifying images of destructions in a historical center of Kyiv. Other cities, e.g. Lviv, were also attacked. At least 20 people were killed and 100 injured. The West condemned this act of terrorism against civilians and promised new harder sanctions against Russia. A few weeks ago, Putin announced partial mobilisation in Russia.
Apart from continuation of attacks on Ukraine, there are few options left for Putin, for instance full mobilisation and tactical nuclear attack on Ukraine are among them. Using nuclear weapons in Ukraine would have enormous consequences for Putin and may end his regime faster (for instance, due to serious response from the West or anti-Putin coup in Russia). This is not a very probable option, but this possibility became even more likely after blasts on Kerch bridge.
It seems that now both Ukrainian and Russia sides are raising the stakes. The question is who surrenders first. If no one does, then we will see much bigger destructions and even more deaths.
What do you think are the highest risks for Ukraine right now, and how can Ukrainian leadership cope with them?
There is a risk of nuclear attack, as mentioned above. There is a risk of the West decreasing its support for Ukraine and concentrating on its inner problems, which already deteriorated due to Russian-Ukrainian war (described in the next answer).
There are also certain issues inside Ukraine. For 30 years of its independence, Ukraine was not able to build a full democracy, effective institutions, the rule of law and professional foreign policy. Russian aggression deteriorated these problems further. The martial law limited democratic freedoms. “Unitary News” show one-sided story and leave no space for independent media. Protests are forbidden and any critique of the government and the president is restricted. Some analysts, politicians and social activists impose self-censorship, thinking that the first enemy is Russia and assuming that all inner problems could be solved after the war. Some, who dare to expose certain mistakes of the leadership and offer solutions, like General Serhyi Kryvonos, get a harsh response from the state. For example, a criminal case was opened against General Kryvonos for his allegedly illegal protection of Zhulyany airport in Kyiv in March 2022. Currently, the decision-making process in Ukraine is very centralised. This gives certain advantages, like fast decisions, during the war. However, this limits new ideas and new professionals to reach decision-making. There are many talented Ukrainians in different spheres, who would like to contribute to faster Ukraine’s victory. They should be given this chance. Some compare Zelensky to Churchill, but we should remember that Churchill was criticised during the war. Ability to criticise leadership and help to develop is a precondition of democracy.
On the other hand, there is lack of trust between leadership and ordinary people. Let us look at the ban for men between 18 and 60 years old to leave Ukraine. Although there are enough people, who join the Army voluntarily, decision-makers are afraid that all men would flee from Ukraine and there would be no one left to protect the country. This step damaged the development of Ukraine’s economy (e.g. men not going abroad to earn money and stay in Ukraine without jobs, limited business cooperation), science (e.g. no scientific exchange for male researchers) and also education. The latest decision to ban even previous students at foreign universities (who were students at these universities before 24th February) to exit Ukraine destroyed future of thousands of young Ukrainians. What education will our young generation receive after two years of online study during covid and current study under bombing? In addition, the government does not share all the information with Ukrainians, e.g. there is no truthful information about the number of deaths from Ukrainian side.
Leadership should be able to trust Ukrainians and give them freedom of choice. This war has shown that Ukrainians are able to unite and protect their country and there is no need to force them to do so. In his inauguration speech Zelensky said: “Everyone of us is a president”. He should be able to prove this and allow each Ukrainian to contribute into the country’s victory in his/her own way.
How can Ukraine secure more Western support?
Ukraine should develop more professional and strategic foreign policy, fight corruption and build better democracy at home. Shouting at foreign politicians is not a foreign policy (although it may give some results during the war). Ukraine should offer Western governments deals that would be interesting for them. Even with highly destroyed economy of the country, Ukraine still has substantial economic potential, which can be interesting for its Western allies. Ukraine’s industries and agriculture continue activities on unoccupied parts of Ukraine. Ukraine can offer economic cooperation now and after its victory.
From my research on EU-Ukraine-Russia relations, I can say that the EU’s preference has been always the same – to have stable economic cooperation with its neighbours. If Ukraine wants the West to stop business with Russia, it should offer alternatives for valuable Western-Russian economic ties. Some of alternatives can be found in Ukraine itself, others – in other parts of the world. And Ukraine could search and help in sustaining these alternatives. European politicians are accountable for their citizens. If in the beginning it was possible to convince Europeans to give away part of their comfort for the good aim – to save Ukrainians from Russian aggression, now people in different EU countries are already concerned with rising prices for food, and in particular for energy. Protests against EU’s sanctions against Russia become more and more common in the EU countries. Ukrainian foreign policy should be able to monitor these changes and find a way to become an interesting partner for the West and not only a victim. Ukraine should be tough in international negotiations and fight for its own goals, but it should be also sensible and aware of its strengths and weaknesses.
Western leaders should remember that Ukrainians are fighting for their freedoms, values, for their country, but they are not fighting for Zelensky or other politicians. It was, of course, inspirational that Zelensky stayed in Kyiv and was recording videos to communicate with Ukrainians. He did certain good decisions, e.g. rapid introduction of martial law. However, Ukrainians would be protecting their country even without Zelensky and other leadership in place. We should remember how bravely and quickly ordinary people without prior military experience organised themselves in territorial defence units. In some Northern regions, where security services, police and regional governors left their cities, it was such territorial defence units, who protected Ukraine.
If Ukraine shows the West how it develops democracy and fights corruption at home, the West will have more interest in supporting the country. If there are no issues with disappearance of humanitarian help, if all Western weapons reach the frontline and Ukraine is open in how it uses Western help, it will be much easier for Western politicians to support such Ukraine. Democratic, corruption-free, economically successful Ukraine with professional foreign policy is a precondition for Ukraine’s victory against Russian aggression.