Ukraine can survive a long war better than Russia.
Dr. John Heathershaw is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Exeter. His research addresses conflict, security, and development in global politics, especially in post-Soviet Central Asia. Increasingly his work has led him to expand geographically to other regions.
What is your view on the latest developments in Ukraine?
The military advances made in eastern and southern Ukraine are encouraging, although major victories will each result in reprisals from Russia, such as the attacks on Ukrainian cities on 10 October. Notwithstanding Ukrainian progress since June, there has been a reality that has been present since early March, which is that neither side can possibly achieve its goals. Ukraine cannot expel Russia from all its territories, and Russia cannot gain complete control over the additional territories it has taken. Both countries will continue to suffer. A peace agreement remains very far off. The war will continue while Putin remains in power.
Do you think sanctions imposed on Russia are effective? Is there a way to maximize their efficiency?
The answer to this question depends on the type of sanctions.
Company-level and country-level sanctions are only effective over the long-term. They are about decoupling Western economies from the Russian economy, which takes time. Ultimately, the consequence of that will be devastating for Russia as its economy will be limited to that of being a supplier of cheap commodities to China, India, and other emerging markets and poor countries. As Europe makes an energy transition to other sources, there will be no return for Russia as an oil and gas supplier to the West. Russian business knows that on the current trajectory, it will be locked into relationships of dependency with China and others. Worse, the high-tech products it needs to stay competitive will be in short supply. It is beginning to look like Iran, lurching from one economic and political crisis to another.
To maximize the efficiency of this transition, Western states need to consider secondary sanctions on states supplying Russia. These are what make the sanctions on Iran punitive. Most importantly, a deal with China to limit the technology (things like semiconductors and microchips) it provides to Russia is desirable. It is advantageous to China that Russia is dependent on it, and so Beijing may agree to this if there are significant incentives from Western states. However, that would require something of a Western rapprochement with China. This will be very difficult given the current geostrategic competition and the fact the US commitment to Taiwan is apparently stronger than its commitment to Ukraine.
Individual-level sanctions are less significant but have had a more immediate effect both legally and symbolically. Since March, in countries like the UK, these have been challenged by some law firms working for wealthy Russians. These Russians often have second citizenship from places like Cyprus, which affords them more rights and influence. But their sources of wealth remain suspect and at risk under laws against corruption and illicit finance, regardless of the war against Ukraine. The challenge is to move from sanctioning and freezing to resourcing the law enforcement agencies to confiscate the assets of those who have made their money from Russia’s kleptocracy.
However, Western countries should avoid blanket travel bans and remain open to educated Russian professionals not implicated in the kleptocratic system, such as engineers, scientists, and academics. To increase the “brain drain” from Russia, these people should be given the opportunity to settle in the West. Unlike the Ukrainians who have settled, they are unlikely to return after the war.
How can Ukrainian leadership secure more Western support?
By fighting the war effectively and in a limited way, Ukraine can achieve incremental increases in Western weapons transfers and training. This means limiting strikes within Russia and ensuring Ukrainian troops do not commit abuses against Russian soldiers. However, I’m afraid that for a significant increase in Western support, we would need to see a major and devastating escalation by Putin, such as tactical nuclear weapons or thermobaric weapons in civilian areas. In such cases, “unthinkable” increases of support – such as NATO attacks on the Black Sea fleet or Russian land forces in Ukraine – might occur at a huge cost.
What do you think are the highest risks for Ukraine right now, and how can Ukrainian leadership cope with them?
The highest risks are those of a serious escalation in the Russian attack leading to devastation of the country. Ukraine must not expect to end the war quickly but must accept that the longer it lasts, the worse for Russia. As long as Western support holds, and most areas of Ukraine remain free from frequent attacks, the costs for Ukraine are great but not catastrophic. Ukraine will remain independent, while Russia will cease to be a great power that its elite imagines it to be.
A second and related risk is the fracturing of Western support. The Ukrainian leadership must always be thinking about how EU and NATO unity can be maintained. Pushing ahead with a NATO application may be popular in Ukraine, but it will not get anywhere soon. Some countries like Turkey and some EU members like Hungary would be happy to see a ceasefire now. If a serious de-escalation offer of some kind – ceasefire, negotiations – comes from Putin, it may undermine Western unity