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Thermodynamic imperialism: the Kremlin's wet dreams of ejecting chaos and unbounding space

Updated: Oct 30, 2023


Dr. Vlad Mykhnenko is an Associate Professor of Sustainable Urban Development at the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford and a Research Fellow at St. Peter’s College, Oxford. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS) and of the UK Higher Education Academy (FHEA).


What is your view on the Ukrainian response to Russian aggression since February 2022?

The Ukrainian response has had multiple actors. We should differentiate between the central state and government agencies (including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches), the local government, the mass media, the civil society, and business elites. All of those actors have got mobilised, many of them quite literally, but some have been much more effective than others. The executive, most importantly, the President and his war cabinet, and the civil society - in equal measure - have spearheaded this mobilisation. The business, especially the big business, has kept a much lower profile.

After 600 days of the large-scale war, Ukraine needs a certain change in its nationwide approach, given the attritional nature and a much longer temporal horizon of this existential battle.

Is there a risk of Western allies pushing Ukraine to seek compromise with the Kremlin?

Over the past 600 days, we heard many intemperate calls by various Western actors to give away (around 20 percent of) the Ukrainian territory to Russia now and before “a Russian victory” that “would reverse Ukrainian gains.” These calls – to me – always smack of desperation. To place the existing conflict in its proper perspective and to engage in really responsible statecraft, it is important to recognise three things.

The first is that the Russian war on Ukraine is not a minor border dispute or a limited postcolonial war over territory like Kashmir or South Sudan. As the Kremlin ruler himself has been at pains to point out on multiple occasions, most recently during his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on February 21, 2023, Russia is embroiled in “a real war” against the whole “collective West.” The actual “territorial compromise” Russia would be willing to accept is the one that was clearly spelt out in December 2021, when Moscow put forward two draft treaties: the first was the ‘Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees, and the second was the ‘Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The latter proposal would reverse the post-Cold War NATO enlargement, in effect, re-establishing the Russian sphere of influence back to its former Warsaw Pact borders east of Berlin, whilst the former would compel the US to agree to such a “core security interest of the other Party.” Hence, the “compromise” in question is not about 20 or even 100 percent of Ukraine’s territory but about half of Europe’s.

The second thing to recognise is best expressed in a famous Russian proverb: Appetite comes with eating [Аppetit prikhodit vo vremia edy]. Beyond the proverb’s literal interpretation, its application is much broader: the deeper one delves into something, the more he likes it. And as the Russian Geographer-in-Chief warned us back in 2016, Russian borders never end.

Russia's borders end nowhere!”: Vladimir Putin grins mischievously when answering his question, “Where do the borders of Russia end?” amongst the giggling participants of the Russian Geographical Society’s awards. The Moscow Kremlin, 24 November 2016.

Finally, Vladimir Putin, personally, and the Kremlin regime, in general, are not trustworthy party to any talks: they have been gradually breaking all of the international treaties and agreements signed by their predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s, or even by themselves in the early 2000s. Moscow openly challenges the international rule-based order. Pacta sunt servanda is simply non-translatable into the Russian language (today).

How can Putin be stopped in Ukraine? What are the risks for Ukraine and the world if he succeeds?

Ukraine’s friends and partners must realise that by delaying and spoon-feeding the supply of weapons, they prolong the war and increase the suffering. The best way to stop Putin is to increase the weapons’ delivery tenfold. Even that figure would only deplete the available combined NATO stock by 8-10%. As I said, the risk is Putin’s appetite will keep on growing, devouring countless lives and livelihoods.

Why is it very important for the West to back Ukraine more?

Just listen to what the Russian state-funded TV and radio channels propagate 24/7 – “onwards, towards Berlin, Paris, and London!” As you might recall, a schoolyard bully only backs off when facing strong resistance. I have recently described the Kremlin’s perspective as ‘thermodynamic imperialism’: Moscow’s wet dream is that of ejecting chaos and unbounding space around the globe. Unfortunately, the Kremlin has been busy putting those dreams into practice over the last 20 years while the West has fallen asleep.


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