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The Russian elites never accepted the loss of Ukraine

Professor Paul D’Anieri is an expert on Eastern European and post-Soviet politics. He is author of Understanding Ukrainian Politics: Power, Politics and Institutional Design (M.E. Sharpe, 2007) and International Politics: Power and Purpose in Global Affairs (Cengage, 2017), now in its fourth edition. His research has appeared in Comparative Politics, East European Politics and Societies, and Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics.

Could you share 2-3 key points you touch upon in your book and what crucial lessons Ukraine could draw from them?

The book's most salient point is that the war's roots go back to 1991 (and even farther). The Russian elite never accepted the loss of Ukraine and made this clear throughout the 1990s. This is important because it shows that Russia desired to regain control of Ukraine before Russia’s democracy collapsed before NATO expanded, and long before the crucial events of 2013-2014. Another important point is that the demise of democracy in Russia had immense geopolitical importance. Russia’s return to autocracy meant that Europe would again be divided between a democratic West and a non-democratic East. The only question was where the line would be drawn. If Ukraine remained democratic, it would be on the western side of the line. Therefore, Ukraine’s democracy meant that Russia could not regain control, and Russia’s insistence on controlling Ukraine became an insistence that Ukraine not be democratic.

What is your view on the Ukrainian response to Russian aggression since February 2022? Do you think Ukraine will be able to reconquer its territories or would have to seek negotiations with Russia in the near future?

Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s aggression in the days and weeks after February 24, 2022, was nearly miraculous. Very few experts believed that Ukraine could withstand the onslaught of the Russian army. Having withstood Russia’s initial attack, Ukraine gained Western nations' support, making it better able to continue the war for many months. Currently, it does not seem likely that Ukraine can eject Russian forces from Ukrainian territory without some dramatic new development, like a collapse of the Russian military or a significant influx of weaponry from the West. However, it is also unclear whether negotiation is a viable strategy. There is little sign that Russia wants to negotiate, and it appears that the Ukrainian people are not yet supportive of negotiations on terms other than the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.

Do you think there is a risk of Ukraine losing Western support, considering the current situation in Israel and the gradual exhaustion of the military arsenals of its Western partners?

The West’s commitment to defending Ukraine is the single biggest question in the war today. The West’s military supplies are slowly being drawn down, and demand for them is now increasing with Israel’s war with Hamas. The West has been slow to devote its formidable industrial potential to the tasks of supplying Ukraine over the long term. Equally important, the political forces in the West that support Ukraine are in danger of losing elections to forces who are either isolationist or even pro-Putin. Recent elections in Slovakia are one example, but the crucial question will be what happens in the US Congress in the coming weeks and in the US presidential elections in 2024.

What do you think is Russia’s ultimate plan? Does it seek to annihilate Ukrainian sovereignty?

Russia’s ultimate goals are not clear, and they may not even be clear to the Russian leadership. Destroying Ukraine’s sovereignty is clearly one goal, but it is less clear exactly where Russia would like to see its borders extend after this conflict. It is also unclear whether Russia will continue with its plans to end not only the Ukrainian state but also the Ukrainian nation as a concept. Russia’s medium-term strategy is clearer. The plan is to pursue the current military strategy at least through the end of 2024. By then, after the US elections, US support for Ukraine may be withdrawn, and Russia will be in a better position to win the war. Only when the US and Europe make it clear that they are in this for the long haul will Russia need to think seriously about a negotiated solution.

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