Putin aims to destroy the Ukrainian dream of freedom
Jan Piekło is a Polish journalist, media expert, longtime (2005–2016) executive director of the Poland-America-Ukraine Cooperation Initiative, in the years 2016–2019 he served as the ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Ukraine.
What do you think Russia wants from Ukraine, and how do you see its influence developing in the near future?
The Kremlin wants to keep Ukraine under its control due to several motives. Firstly, Ukraine used to be a cradle of orthodox Christianity, and that is the reason why Russia was quite unhappy that Ukraine received Tomos, autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople early last year. For Russia, the religious issue is of fundamental importance because the Kremlin would want to have a stronger influence over spiritual matters in Ukraine. Secondly, without Ukraine, the importance of Russia and its empire status is greatly diminished because Ukraine has played a historically significant role in the process of Russian empire-building. Putin knows this, and it is the reason why he tries to use all the possible means to subordinate Ukraine. The 2014 Revolution of Dignity and signing of the EU Association Agreement marked Ukraine's closer convergence with the EU and its move away from the Russian influence. As a result, the Kremlin decided to resort to the application of the "Novorossiya" concept to initiate its takeover of Crimea and destabilizing activities in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin took over Crimea without a single shot. After that, the Kremlin got involved in eastern Ukraine, supporting the creation of DPR and LPR to destabilize Ukraine and straightforward ambitions to move further to capture Odessa and Mariupol. Nevertheless, it didn't work out as Ukraine managed to fight back as it has received political backing of the EU, US, and Canada while also rebuilding its army and stopping further incursion of its territory.
Currently, there is an opportunity for the Kremlin to gain leverage in Ukraine due to the inexperienced Ukrainian president and preoccupation of western allies with other matters. The United States is busy with impeachment and other issues on its agenda, and the EU in a complicated shape due to Brexit, etc. French President Macron and German politicians are more interested in pushing Ukraine to reach a deal with the Kremlin to end the conflict on Russia's terms. Also, while Baltic states and Poland have a good understanding that if Ukraine goes under the Kremlin umbrella, they might be next in line, other countries in the region like Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania are not particularly interested in Ukrainian matters. At the same time, it seems that Putin is interested in incorporating Belarus in the foreseeable future. He stated some time ago that the collapse of the USSR was the most significant geopolitical catastrophe in the 20th century. I think he seeks to lay the foundation for his future successor to preserve the ambition of restoring the big Russian empire, which would especially incorporate Ukraine and Belarus.
Do you think Ukraine can ever join NATO in the near future considering the current war waged by Russia?
Ukraine and Georgia were closest to get a perspective to join NATO during the Bucharest summit in 2008. However, such an aspiration met opposition in the face of Germany and France. Currently, due to territorial conflict in the Ukrainian territory, the most realistic would be for Ukraine to seek closer cooperation with NATO. For instance, Ukraine could follow the example of Sweden, which collaborates closely with NATO. Also, in this regard, Ukraine can offer a lot of useful experience for such collaboration with NATO it has gained fighting in eastern Ukraine and counteracting Russia's hybrid methodology. I believe that jointly they could exchange knowledge and conduct joint training on this and other matters.
Do you think peace will be reached in Donbas?
I find it difficult to assess the possibility of reaching peace in Donbas as there is a lack of willingness from the Russian side to withdraw weaponry and military units from Ukraine while also providing Ukraine's access to the border. I think that the Kremlin is not very interested in taking symmetrical steps aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It is in its interest to support separatist LPR and DPR and further destabilize Ukraine.