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‘For us, Ukraine is the same as Pakistan for India. And so we are going to have our peaceful Pakistan, and pro-Indian Pakistan on our border’

Alexey Kupriyanov, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, spoke to Nirupama Subramanian

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: February 27, 2022 6:24:07 pm
Alexey Kupriyanov

Can you tell us what the situation is right now? We are getting a lot of reports of air strikes, and that the Ukrainian army has been immobilised?

This morning President Vladimir Putin announced the start of the operation against Ukrainian forces for the de-Nazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine. But we do not know yet how far this will go. It means a change of leadership of Ukraine that will be more friendly to Russia. And the formal reason was Ukraine’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk Agreement over the past seven years.

So far we have seen targeted strikes on military infrastructure such as command and control centres, airfields, military depots, and fighting on the line of contact in Donbass between forces of the two republics and the Ukrainian forces. And now there are reports of the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine with practically null resistance.

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What does demilitarisation and de-Nazification actually mean?

In Russian political discourse, the thesis about the happenings in Ukraine in 2014 is, that the revolution in Ukraine as portrayed in the Western media, was actually a coup d’etat, and a forcible change of power. And this was supported by far right groups. And a lot of these far right groups then fought in Donbass against Russians. So President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected under the flag of peace. He was supported by those sections who supported the peaceful resolution of [the conflict in] Donbass.

But Zelensky couldn’t find this resolution, and so he instead tried to balance his position between the far right and the more peaceful groups in Ukraine. And just a month and a half ago, he closed the last channel of peace in Ukraine, the pro-peace channel, so that’s why I think Putin called this a Nazi regime or a Nazi-supported regime.

The Ukrainian economy is highly militarised. In the last eight years, Western countries have pumped Ukraine with a lot of weapons, anti-tank weapons. And some Ukrainian politicians and military officials have been talking about the restoration of Ukraine as a military state. That is what Putin meant when he said demilitarisation and de-Nazification of Ukraine. Now Ukraine has an about 550,000-strong army. And de-Nazification, by that he meant there will be a change of power – new elections in Ukraine.

How are Putin’s actions going down in Russia itself? What do Russians think about this?

It’s not a full-scale invasion as yet. This is something like the Syrian campaign. And till now we see only air strikes, targeted air strikes – something like surgical strikes in the Indian sense. Till now, Putin does not need the people’s support.

In the result of these strikes, there is no news about Ukrainian and Russian casualties. The limits of this operation will be known only by and by, and the level of the resistance from the Ukrainian forces. When you carry out air strikes, you don’t need any great public support – the US didn’t need public support in their campaign against Iraq, for example. Modi did not need public support, did not take Parliament’s support for surgical strikes. So until the [time the] scale is limited, the problem of public support is not an issue, not a question for Putin.

Where do you see it all heading? Will it stop at these strikes, do you see this escalating?

Because of the US and European sanctions against Russia since last year, they were very soft. The Russian economy did not face any problems because of these actions. If it is full-scale sanctions, problems with Swift, problems over our banks, it will be one thing. If these are softer sanctions, meant to find a resolution to the problem, it’s absolutely different. Now, the Russian economy is quite strong, we have very low national debt, we have our own system, we don’t have any great loans from the western market. What will happen further, I can’t say now.

How do you see this changing Russia’s position in the world, its own relations in Europe and the world?

For the last 30 years, our leadership, elites were mainly pro-Western. Some years ago was the turn to the east. So I think this turn will happen. Russia will be more east-oriented after this. We will have to fix our borders on the west, and begin to change the focus of our interests to the east, to eastern markets.

How do you see China’s response to what has happened? Yesterday they took a very cautious line, today they have blamed NATO expansion.

China is in a really uneasy position. China has problems with the US, and some other NATO countries, for example the UK. For China, support of the Russian position is inevitable. China is one of those that has benefited from the European crisis because after this, US and European countries will have to focus on the European situation and the US will not be able to change its focus to the Pacific.
And at the same time, China has its own problems in Taiwan – China cannot recognise the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, because it can lead to the Taiwanese holding their own referendum, and a Taiwanese declaration of independence, and China just now does not have any means to prevent that.

What is the Russian expectation of India?

India has quite a rich and uneasy history about the restoration of Indian writ and Indian ownership over some territories – we remember Goa, Hyderabad, the Sikkim referendum, and so on. In all these cases Russia supported India, Russia was never against India. And so we understand the Indian position now – India is our old good friend, and at the same time we understand that India has no choice but to be close to the United States, the superpower and hegemon. So we think as a whole India will continue its neutral line, and will keep above the situation.

Do you think there is still any room for diplomatic resolution of the situation?

Of course, there is always room for a diplomatic resolution. For example, if the Ukrainian leadership agrees to demilitiarise its economy, and maybe to prohibit neo-Nazi groups, it will be enough. Then, it could be talks under the Normandy format, between Europeans, the Ukrainian leadership, the Russian leadership, maybe to implement the Minsk Agreements, maybe to have a new Minsk Agreement for the federalisation of Ukraine.

But I’m not sure – one of the aims of the last one month and a half was trying to find a European leader who could press on Ukraine to implement the Minsk Agreement. But Putin didn’t find that leader. But I hope this will stop as soon as possible, and that least numbers of civilians will suffer.

Going by Putin’s speech, it felt like he wanted to re-integrate Ukraine into Russia. Is that something he would do?

No, he did not say about integration of Ukraine. He said about how great parts of Ukraine were given to Ukraine by the Stalinist regime, by the Communist regime and so on. He pointed [out] that Ukrainian actions are illogical because Ukraine began decommunisation, and Putin explained [that] Russia can show you (Ukraine) what is real decommunisation – Ukraine could lose all its territories.

But I don’t think he wants to incorporate Ukraine in Russia because for us, in fact, it needs a political solution. The Ukrainian issue has to be decided by compromise, not by incorporation.

I am sorry for this analogy, but for us, Ukraine is the same as Pakistan for India. And so we are going to have our peaceful Pakistan, and pro-Indian Pakistan on our border.

If the whole intention, as was being suggested, of massing troops on the Ukrainian border, was to get the West’s attention and make them understand Russia’s insecurities about NATO expansion and to try and hammer out a new security architecture in Europe, this escalation does not serve that purpose, does it? Now the new security architecture is going to be more anti-Russia than it was before, exactly the opposite of what President Putin wanted. How do you see the consequences?

From the beginning, Putin had a lot of options. The main option was to escalate, demonstrate Russia’s military capabilities. The main aim was to create a new security system in Europe. And Ukraine is just one piece of this puzzle. But after a month and a half of talks without results, and trying to get answers from the West, Putin thought it’s all over. So Russia didn’t have any solution about European security. In this situation, Putin decided to secure the southern, eastern part of the border and to pacify Ukraine. Now we will see.

For us, there’s a great danger that Finland and Sweden will get closer to NATO. But maybe it’s just my opinion, the Ukrainian problem is much more painful, and more important than the problem of Finland and Sweden’s participation in NATO. But of course it would be good if we could avoid this situation.

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