Ukrainians shouldn’t harbor false hopes of Russia’s imminent defeat in the wake of Kyiv recapturing Kharkiv Oblast from the invaders, Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko said during an interview with NV Radio on Sept. 19.
NV: When he attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) last week, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin seemed to threaten Ukraine with further escalations, but also sounded like he was begging for negotiations. How would you describe these mixed signals?
Fesenko: It was indeed a mix. He’s mostly trying to intimidate the West, as I think he’s beginning to understand that Ukraine isn’t afraid anymore.
Putin is now making the strategic threat of crippling Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure ahead of the coming winter season.
At the same time, he is signaling he’s open for a peace deal on his terms. Intimidation is how he’s hoping to induce the West to force Ukraine to the table – echoing age-old Russian narratives of Kyiv being a mere puppet of Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris.
China and India – key members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a Eurasian political, economic and security organization) – have both told Putin in no uncertain terms their economic interests lie in a speedy conclusion to this war.
NV: Do you think he’ll try to freeze the conflict now, and would the West play along?
Fesenko: Any peace on Putin’s terms is peace in name only. He’s most likely looking to freeze the whole thing and keep his remaining territorial gains. Although some of the Ukrainian territory he holds could be negotiated away.
At any rate, he clearly wants to keep most of what he’s captured. That’s why he’s pushing Ukraine and the West towards a ceasefire.
NV: Is the international community now finally focused on helping Ukraine win, given the recent developments?
Fesenko: I don’t think the West is united on what a Ukrainian victory or a Russian defeat would look like, even if this unity has grown since Feb. 24.
Everyone agrees Russia cannot be allowed to win this war – this is a point of universal consensus.
But there are certain nominally Western countries that nevertheless maintain a more Moscow-leaning stance – Hungary and Turkey, for instance.
They pursue very specific, self-interested policies. Some, like Israel, are walking the line, maintaining a certain degree of neutrality.
But in general, Ukraine continues to enjoy broad and unprecedented international support. Even Germany is now sending heavy weapons – something it was very reluctant to do earlier. But on the issue of what a Ukrainian victory means, there is some disagreement.
Some countries argue for a total Russian defeat, liberating all of Ukrainian territory and precipitating the political transformation of Russia itself.
Others, such as Germany and France, are still within their old frame of thinking, suggesting negotiating with Putin is going to be inevitable.
That’s the weak spot in the Western coalition that the Kremlin is aiming at. Putin hopes energy blackmail of Europe and Ukraine will eventually force these countries to champion “a necessary peace process.”
But I think his energy blackmail of the EU will backfire, and will only ensure Gazprom loses the European market much sooner than anticipated.
NV: Kyiv Post recently wrote that Russia will declare victory, no matter the actual outcome of the war.
Fesenko: I won’t speculate on how Russian propaganda might try to spin that. But we must realize that Russia will never capitulate. The Kharkiv counteroffensive prompted us to dream of imminent Russian capitulation, reparations, and so on. But these are just that – dreams.
Russia won’t admit defeat, and it remains rather powerful. It’s possible to throw Russian out of Ukraine, provided we get enough weapons and ammunition. But to expect Moscow to just give up and leave is folly.
NV: Mexico recently proposed a rather bizarre peace plan at the UN, envisioning the Secretary-General Antonia Guterres and the Pope as mediators.
Fesenko: This is perfectly sensible – from Mexico’s point of view. The UN and the Vatican are influential institutions to them, so it’s reasonable to ask them to mediate.
What this plan, and the many similar ones before it failed to internalize, is that there’s no room for compromise today. Russia seeks to freeze the conflict, which is unacceptable to us. Ukraine aims to liberate its lands, even if the process is gradual and arduous.
We intend to liberate all of Ukraine – Donbas and Crimea included – and there is absolutely no room for compromise between Kyiv and Moscow on this. Therefore, any peace plans like the one suggested by Mexico are purely abstract and doomed to fail.
NV: The pro-Russia OPZH party has been banned, but its members and MPs face no restrictions on their political activity. What’s the point of the ban then?
Fesenko: It has obliterated the party’s future, and punished it for collaborating with Russia and pushing its interests in Ukraine, even if only in a formal, legal sense.
The question of individual MPs is another matter. The Constitutional Court would have to weigh in on what are we to do with MPs of a banned party. This is a unique predicament, with no legal precedent – an outgrowth of the war.
Whatever the court’s ruling might eventually be, the party will not be around. Maybe some of its members will try to create another similar project, but it will necessarily have a different name and political identity. I don’t think it will ever be possible to participate in Ukrainian politics while espousing pro-Russian views.
NV: But the same people who were extolling the virtues of “Pax Russica” will be around, getting elected.
Fesenko: They could try to get re-elected, but it’s an open question if they will succeed. Under what slogans? They could once again try to advocate for peace, but on what terms?
NV: If Luhansk Oblast and Crimea come back to Ukraine, they could get elected again.
Fesenko: That’s what they might be counting on, so we have to develop a comprehensive de-occupation transition policy for Donbas and Crimea. In particular, these regions should be brought back into our electoral politics gradually. Local elites have to be scoured, preclosing collaborators from ever running for office.
Certain political parties, advocating for cooperation and unification with Russia will have to be outright banned – just like the Communist and Fascist parties were. Promoting cooperation with the country that invaded us has to be outlawed.
In terms of individual MPs, we could draw on Germany’s post-war experience. Politicians who worked for the occupation regime must be barred from political life. There’s a lot to think about in this regard, and individual rulings would have to be used instead of some sort of a blanket approach.