The Russo-Western conflict over Ukraine has been accelerating since late 2021. The entry of the Russian forces into Ukraine on 24 February made the situation increasingly complex and left the whole world facing murky scenarios, the most optimistic of which suggests undesirable consequences that no country, far or near, will be immune from.
Given the complexity of the current scene, observers around the world found themselves confronted with a muddled picture brought about by the conflicting news and the expansion of confrontation to cyber spaces. As such, towards ascertaining the views of the Ukrainian political elite on the current situation, the ECSS’ Egyptian Observatory [al-Marsad al-Masry] conducted an interview with Dr. Oleksandr Bogomolov, a high-profile figure in Ukrainian politics and director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies (NISS) subordinated to the Ukrainian Presidency.
Dalia Yousry: Allow me to start with the big question of identity. What is the dividing line between Russian and Ukrainian identities? What is the point of Ukraine’s culture war with Russia?
Oleksandr Bogomolov: That is a long story that would require an entire interview to tell given the persistent misconceptions stemming from the historical, cultural, and civilizational misunderstandings that Russia has long reinforced through propaganda. So, to make a long story short, there are Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. Overall, there are about 65 million people speaking Ukrainian worldwide, the majority of whom live in Ukraine and the rest are communities living abroad.
However, the variety of Russian spoken in Ukraine differs from that spoken in Russia, specifically Moscow. Evidence of this was the detention of Russian troops dressed in civilian clothes to run secret sabotage operations. They were easy to identify because of their strong Russian accent and Ukrainians who speak Russian could easily identify both accents.
Noteworthy, Ukrainian is a language that has a long history and, in terms of vocabulary, it’s closer to Slovak and Polish than to Russian as it shares so much vocabulary with these two languages. So, it’s considered one of the languages of Central Europe.
Those living in Ukraine naturally speak both languages, but Ukrainians living abroad speak only Ukrainian and do not understand Russian. The opposite is true for Russia. Russians find difficulty understanding spoken Ukrainian, particularly Ukrainian spoken in regions of central Ukraine. To be precise, Ukrainian is part of the Slavic language family.
In speaking of a culture war against Russians living in Ukraine, I can definitely say that any talk about violation of the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine is just one of Russia’s justifications for its war. They want to create the illusion of waging the war to defend Russian-speaking citizens. This has no basis in truth and is just an evidence of Russia’s failure to read the social environment in Ukraine that isn’t plagued by any national or ethnic intolerance.
Over the past years, Russia’s media, including the State television, has tried to portray Ukraine negatively and it has achieved relative success in that. Even before the outbreak of the war in 2014, the Russian President has repeatedly stressed that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, a declaration that directly impinges on identity.
However, when it comes to the line between Ukrainian and Russian identities, it is not “language” nor “ethnicity” that bulk large but rather “freedom” and “independence”, two concepts that Ukraine has managed to reinforce in the post-independence years, leading Ukraine to grow as a democratic European country in contrast to Russia that has gone into reverse.
Russia is an autocratic state suffering from excessive concentration of power around a single person or very few people who make all the big decisions, primarily Russian businessmen who have their voices heard in the Kremlin and whom the Kremlin entrusts with implementation of many projects abroad.
In Ukraine, the situation is different and Russian tourists to Ukraine can actually experience this, and usually say, “We come to Ukraine and speak Russian as we like. We feel we are in Europe.”
Her, it should be noted that printing books in Ukrainian was banned during the Tsardom of Russia (i.e. in the 1880s) pursuant to several legal and legislative decisions at that time. So, if there has been a culture war, then it is Russia that was waging it not Ukraine.
And if we speak of belonging and citizenship spirit, the Ukrainians’ resistance to the Russian invasion speaks volumes of this. It’s a proof that Ukrainians are a free people who felt from their own accord that they should resist the occupation.
Look at those citizens who do not fear power and who realize that the authorities of their country should be democratically elected. Refer to history to see how Ukrainians respond to any attempt that aims at bringing back the old situation that existed under the government of the fourth Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country to Russia after people rose up against him. Freedom, respect, and dignity are the basic characteristics that define the Ukrainian identity and separate the Ukrainian values from the contemporary Russian ones.
DY: How do you evaluate the current negotiations between Russia and Ukraine?
OB: As a rule, when two conflicting parties decide to go to the negotiating table, this means they have their reasons, or rather their own interests, to do so. This begs the question: why did Russia go to the negotiations? To gain time, that is the answer. They do not have the fighting ability to carry on with the attack, so they need to go to the negotiations to buy more time. So, for Russia, the negotiations are a cover-up to the ongoing mobilization and recruitment.
I’m saying this because, so far, Russia hasn’t given up on the idea of controlling big cities, particularly the capital. They are trying to unify all efforts and mobilize all possible assistance from abroad because they fear the deteriorating domestic situation that the economic sanctions gave rise to. Additionally, many of the Russian troops had no desire to engage in the military operation. Some captured Russian troops said they hadn’t known why the war was waged and why they were in Ukraine. Against this background, the Russians had to go to the negotiating table.
As for the reasons that pushed Ukraine to go to the negotiating table, I’d say Ukraine participated in the current discussions in order to safeguard the lives and agree on safe corridors for civilians in many cities, including Mariupol, areas northwest of Kyiv, or other areas that have been stormed several times and where fierce fighting was reported.
Putting out feelers was perhaps another reason that drove Ukraine to go to the negotiations. Testing plans of the Russian leadership revealed that it has no exit strategy. At first, the Russians were fully confident in their military capabilities being the second most powerful army in the world, a title that they don’t deserve given their apparent failure in fighting over the past 20 days. Regarding the pace of the current negotiations, I think it is too early to predict whether the negotiations could give rise to anything serious because Russia doesn’t seem to take negotiations seriously.
DY: What, for you, are the scenarios that would take Ukraine out of the current crisis?
OB: This is not a crisis. It’s a war in every sense of the word. There are only two ways out of any war: 1) victory of one party over the other or 2) going to the negotiations and signing a ceasefire or peace agreement if the two parties have no intention to continue fighting. The current situation doesn’t suggest the negotiations could open the door to a peace agreement, although field developments suggest Russia’s inability to continue its invasion. Many indications show that Russia’s invasion plan was built on shaky grounds.
Russia misread the Ukrainian politics and Ukraine’s social environment. Russia’s military thinking didn’t match the reality. In essence, Russia’s strategy was based on the premise that Ukraine was nothing but a clique of people –the Ukrainian leadership– whom the Russian leadership did not shy away from humiliating.
The Russian leadership has mistakenly believed that those in power in Ukraine don’t enjoy popularity at home. So, they thought the Ukrainian people would welcome them upon their entry into the country. Events of the past 20 days proved their beliefs wrong. Indeed, it’s safe to say that Russia’s pre-war assessments were a fatal mistake.
This misappraisal is not inexplicable. How could an authoritarian autocratic state understand the nature of a democratic country when it has no concept of what democracy is. The current Ukrainian leadership is democratically elected and so are government leaders in local and central authorities. The reality on the ground attests to that. It is the elected leadership that runs the opposition, manages the protests, and leads the armed resistance against the invader. If this is any indicator, it is a proof of how vibrant and robust Ukraine’s democratic system is.
Militarily, Russia planned the campaign to be conducted in blitzkrieg style. According to Russia’s military plan (which is well-known to everyone now) entry into the capital was supposed to take between 2-4 days at most and a military parade was planned to be held downtown.
Yet, in effect, Russia’s guns have been spiked since day one and the current military moves are facing the same fate. Russia’s military losses are significant, with 40% of its attack assets –personnel or equipment–destroyed. In this vein, we could refer to Ukrainian official data, which speak of the Russian losses in Ukraine.
Source: Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 15 March 2022
Additionally, about 13% of Russian troops have been killed and around 1,000 troops have been taken captive. Here, I recall Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous dictum, “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” This is the point I want to raise. There is considerable evidence that shows signs of lack of morale of the Russian troops who entered Ukraine. Several escapes have been reported, particularly among new recruits and students of military schools who ran away leaving their equipment behind. Further, forces ran their supply lines. So, we see Russian troops penetrating deep into Ukraine’s territory then stopping due to lack of functional readiness of vehicles and unavailability of oil or food supplies, leaving their military equipment behind and fleeing towards the forest trying to get away to the Russian lands across the border.
Nevertheless, the Russian leadership steadfastly commits to its goals behind this war, failing to admit its futility. From this perspective, we need to have a closer look at Russia’s goals behind the attack to differentiate between its stated and real goals. The stated goals speak of Russia’s concerns of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansions in Eastern Europe and Ukraine’s accession to it. However, at the time of the invasion, Ukraine wasn’t really going to join NATO, not even in the near future. I am saying this although joining NATO is an important pillar of Ukrainian politics. Besides, some Eastern European countries that were formerly members of the Warsaw Pact at the time of the Soviet Union joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but their accession was not initiated by NATO. These countries endeavored to join the alliance despite NATO’s unwillingness to accept them at the time.
Beyond that, NATO isn’t merely a military alliance. It’s an alliance of democratic countries that made a pact to preserve and defend their democratic principles and values. Ukraine –since the first day of its independence– has always sought to return to the European family by joining the European Union (EU).
A re-reading of history would reveal that joining NATO is the practical way to join the EU. A case in point is Poland and Lithuania, two countries that joined NATO then the EU. Ukraine wanted to follow the same path. As for the military, defense, and security consequences of joining NATO, this issue has always been discussed several times.
I also want to reiterate that the real war with Russia started actually in 2014 when Russia stormed Ukraine, occupied the Crimea, and annexed it pursuant to Russian laws. Afterwards, it conducted a proxy war in the Donbass region, which consists of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces where it formed groups of local fighters under Russian command.
Those fighters showed up to the world as being rebels, although the notion of “rebellion” had never been known to Ukraine before 2014. That way, Russia endeavored to create two mini-states which are only falling under the full control of Russia. Thus, the Russo-Ukrainian war began in 2014, when Ukraine was already a country with a neutral status.
Notably, Ukraine has adopted neutrality since the time of the fourth president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, who previously signed a Foreign and Domestic Policy law stipulating that Ukraine is a neutral state. This law was approved by the Ukrainian parliament [Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine] in 2010 under the presidency of Yanukovych. However, Ukraine’s neutral status didn’t prevent Russia from invading the country in 2014.
As for the proposed scenarios to end the war, I can say that the war will not, unfortunately, end outside the battlefield. Russia should admit what it did. I do not only mean the political and strategic mistakes I touched on but its violation of international law, charters of the United Nations, and the agreements signed between Russia and Ukraine in which Russia provided Ukraine with security assurances that guarantee its sovereignty and territorial integrity, including the 1994 nuke deal and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances which Russia explicitly violated this year and earlier in 2014.
Realizing that their blitzkrieg strategy proved to be a fiasco, Russia came to apply the tactics its troops has been trained on using in Syria aimed at destroying infrastructure, roads, airports, factories and industrial facilities to wreak havoc, inflict economic losses on Ukraine, and give rise to large waves of refugees. Notably, deaths among Ukrainian civilians over the past 20 days outnumber deaths among soldiers.
DY: How does Kyiv evaluate efforts of the West to help Ukraine?
OB: As far as I judge, these are significant efforts. NATO has taken a definite stand and so is the European Union (EU) and our neighbors. Let us not forget the role of Turkey. Ukraine has good military technical cooperation with the EU on the one hand and Turkey on the other. This is very critical for us, particularly given the role the Turkish Bayraktar drones played since the outbreak of the war. They proved quite effective in managing the fight
Here, it’s important to understand why Ukraine is receiving this kind of [military] assistance. Clearly, this isn’t a purely Russo-Ukrainian war. It’s a regional war since day one involving three countries directly engaged in it, namely Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Belarus allowed missile launchers to be stationed on and shoot from its territory towards Ukraine, bombarding peaceful cities every day. Many of the military strikes come not only from the Russian military ships in the Black Sea but form Belarusian bases as well.
What’s more, Russia is placing many restrictions on peaceful neighboring countries, causing them to feel threatened. In this way, Russia put Europe as a whole in danger after decades of peace in the continent following World War II. So, such assistance wasn’t not provided for the sake of Ukraine but in defense of Europe as a whole, its values, and its established security system after Russia violated all international laws and norms. It’s in the interest of any neighboring country or any country in the world to face this challenge. That’s why they send aid, whether military or humanitarian.
DY: What about the US role?
OB: In my view, the US role is very critical. Indeed, the current US administration has shown enormous capabilities in leading NATO and the US diplomacy has already played a significant role in unifying visions of NATO members and bringing them together.
The United States didn’t do so out of its role as a major power but because it had a common interest in deterring Russia. Since the end of World War II, no wars have been fought in Europe, let alone a war that brutal, threatening neighboring and distant European countries.
Failure of the Russian policies is clearly evidenced in the shift in the position of some neutral countries on joining NATO. Finland is a case in point. A recent poll revealed that 65% of Finnish voters back accession of their country to NATO following the Russian attack on Ukraine.
DY: How would you characterize endeavors made by the West to help Ukraine recover Crimea before the outbreak of the current war?
OB: When it comes to Crimea, I think no considerable effort was made by the West in this respect. It should be noted that no West or non-west country has recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
DY: Do you think it is better for Ukraine to stay neutral or maintain its desire to join the EU?
OB: Neutrality –meaning non-accession to NATO– is out of question at the moment as it doesn’t guarantee Ukraine anything. Ample evidence indicates that neither maintaining our desire to join NATO nor pledging neutrality will give rise to any way out of the current situation. As I mentioned, Russia’s real goal has nothing to do with Ukraine’s accession to NATO or similar international cartels. It is, in essence, an imperialist war aimed at taking over Ukraine’s resources.
Ukraine is rich in resources, particularly agricultural ones. Many countries worldwide depend on Ukrainian grain. Take, for example, China whose 30 percent of wheat needs come from Ukraine, let alone other Arab countries including Egypt and Lebanon, among others. Additionally, Ukraine has enormous industrial capabilities, agro-industries I mean.
Experts estimate that Ukraine can feed 600 to 700 million people around the world. When it comes to mineral resources, we find that Ukraine is a country that is rich in minerals, including iron, titanium, and uranium, in addition to other important resources that are abundantly available in Ukraine.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy have been motivated by its desire to rebuild the Russian Empire and reinforce Russia’s presence as one of the world’s poles. However, this political ideology runs counter to vulnerabilities the Russian economy is experiencing due to failure of all development and modernization projects since the decline of the Soviet Union, causing its economy to be highly dependent on export earnings from energy commodities.
Reference may be made to several Russian analyses and writings that suggest that rebuilding Russia isn’t at all possible without annexation of Ukraine or bringing it under control, whether militarily, economically, or politically. Therefore, annexation of Ukraine, only annexation of Ukraine, has been Russia’s main objective behind this war. This renders all addresses of the Russian leadership since the early 21st century, particularly following 2014, devoid of any real meaning as they are just aimed at sweeping facts under the carpet until they go out of the people’s sight.
DY: How do you see the ongoing statements made by Western leaders regarding the refusal of Ukraine to join NATO?
OB: There has never been a consensus among NATO members on the accession of Ukraine to NATO. Why? Because of the rejection of some NATO members, particularly Germany due to its relations with Russia.
DY: What if the war is over now? How, for you, will Ukraine rebuild?
OB: This is a big issue, a really big one because the war, any war and particularly the one that Russia is waging against Ukraine, is aimed at destroying the economy [and rebuilding the economy is no easy]. Yet, an important path is underway. Ukraine has entered into negotiations with the EU to accelerate its accession to the alliance. If this goes well, it will make rebuilding far easier. If Ukraine becomes an EU member, this will make it easier for Ukraine to access loans and assistance that our country will undoubtedly be in need of during the post-war reconstruction.
Several cases have been brought before international courts against Russia, for having the ultimate responsibility for the destruction of our country, including cases before the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, much less similar cases in several countries. It is Russia that holds accountable for this criminality and it should compensate for it. That’s obvious and that’s what is supposed to happen. We can’t make prognoses about the future but Russia is the aggressor which makes it responsible for compensating the aggrieved party.
DY: How would Ukraine deport foreign mercenaries brought by both sides?
OB: Ukraine hasn’t brought foreign mercenaries. Those who came to Ukraine are a group of foreign volunteers. They aren’t a large group but their presence is highly significant, symbolizing the support that Ukraine gets from free people around the world, particularly from European neighbors. Such support is conceivable whether at the military or political level.
Here I would like to point out that there are only four countries that supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine, namely Belarus, Eritrea, Syria and North Korea. These are either fragile or failed states that are of no international caliber and are dependent on Russian aid no less. Additionally, a large number of countries that used to be typically allied with or supportive of Russia and have always shown consistent support to Russia’s resolutions at the UN level didn’t support its invasion of Ukraine. Cuba and Armenia are significant examples of this, although the latter is highly dependent on Russia.
As for the foreign mercenaries brought by Russia, we find that Russia has tried to recruit fighters from the Middle East, particularly Syria, after realizing its assault on Ukraine has been smothered, with its military units lacking the sufficient offensive capability to bring the war to completion and its military personnel ending either drained, or escaped, or killed (40% of whom have been killed, wounded, or captured), and the remaining personnel aren’t sufficient or capable of capturing major cities or important regions in Ukraine.
That’s why they are embarking on destroying cities with heavy artillery for their inability to capture these areas. This is evidenced by Russia’s storming the northwestern suburbs of Kyiv and destroying ports with heavy navy artillery in the Sea of Azov in Mariupol, besides shelling houses and places of worship, including a Turkish mosque that housed civilians. Available data indicates that Russia has destroyed a large theater where a thousand people were hiding, and I have no information whether they are still alive or already dead.
All of these are indications of Russia’s military failure across all major areas due to poor planning of the military operation, lack of supplies, and the strong Ukrainian resistance not only by the military but by the Ukrainian people as well who rose up against the occupation.
Perhaps that explains why Russia’s declaration of the state of war is currently on the table, notwithstanding the fact that they still fear taking this step. In Russia, it is strictly forbidden to label Russia’s operation a “war” or criticize it. Russian authorities introduced strict laws that prevent people from using the word “war” or criticizing the Russian operation. Any person found in contravention of the law could be handed down a sentence of 15 years imprisonment.
When it comes to recruitment of fighters, it was at first done in a sly way where people were summoned to military recruitment centers on the pretext of training, then sent to Ukraine. After that, they tried to recruit citizens of some poor Muslim regions, such as Dagestan, offering to pay interested recruiters up to RUB 2,000 a day. In the same way, they recruited Syrians. Why Syrians? Because Russian troops don’t have the necessary military capacity to manage the fighting, attack, or implement the military plan.
In reply to the question about how Ukraine will be able to deport mercenaries, I believe, with great regret, that the fate of Syrians who entered Ukraine will be unhappy. If the Ukrainian army –which is defending its territory legitimately and legally as is permitted by international laws– has managed to cause Russia to lose 40% of a total of 105,000 troops that have been concentrated near the Ukrainian border, what would it do with those foreign fighters, considering they have no knowledge of the local circumstances, lack military preparedness, and can’t be matched in anyway with Ukrainian troops?
I am most surprised at those who are willing to throw themselves into this. The same applies to Russian military companies, such as Wagner, whose several of its personnel lost their lives as a result of this war. They face the same grim fate that awaits Syrian fighters.
DY: Now that the Ukrainians have taken up arms, how will Kyiv deal with this in the post-war period?
OB: Yes, Ukrainians are now armed but this is a very critical factor in resisting the enemy. Initially, I’d like to point out that there is a large number of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine and those are engaged in resistance. So, contrary to what Russian propaganda claims, they are part of the public resistance movement against the Russian occupation.
Moreover, many of the Ukrainian people are now highly armed and engaged in anti-occupation activities. Recently, the International Court of Justice ruled that Russia shall immediately suspend the military operations that it commenced on 24 February and that the Ukrainian people had every right to defend themselves and their territories against Russian aggression.
With regard to popular armament, this issue is always on the table when a war or a conflict breaks out, and there are definitely ways to address it. What is important to mention here is that the entire Ukrainian people are peaceful people who only took up arms when faced with great danger. I am sure disarming civilians involved in defending their lands will not be a big issue.
I would also like to highlight that Ukraine does have a security system to defend territories, comprising groups of civilians working under the command of officers or retired officers. Further, there are civilian units led by members of the elected local authorities, something like fedayeen groups that some Arab countries knew before. People of these groups are armed, and many of them took the military equipment left behind by fleeing Russians, including tanks. When the war ends, there definitely will be a large number of armed civilians but I don’t think Ukraine will end being one of those countries suffering from long-running wars and armed conflicts like Afghanistan or Yemen.
Disarmament is a big and very complex issue in social environments that are characterized by sectarianism and gang rivalry, such as the case in Somalia. I mean those countries that have popular conflicts rooted deeply in their history, which push some tribes or some community components to fight each other and fight the elite as well.
This isn’t the case for the social environment in Ukraine. We have never experienced such conflicts. Even during the previous Ukrainian revolutions, the people were peaceful and not a single window was broken. Ukrainians have a peaceful orderly culture, so I am never afraid of any foreseeable problems regarding disarmament. It’s just that this process will require extreme measures to be implemented and an organized program of disarmament to be developed.
DY: How do you assess the decision of the Ukrainian President to release criminal offenders to join the resistance movement? How could such a decision be reversed in the future?
OB: Consultations on this resolution started early in the first days of the war. There was talk of freeing some prison inmates, whether they were criminals or not, to be allowed to join the armed resistance. At the time, several options were under discussion, and all were focused on freeing prisoners who committed minor offenses, not killers or dangerous criminals.
I mean, consultations on this decision were related to detainees held for minor offenses, not dangerous criminals. As far as I know, this decision was never implemented. It was just discussed. Russia just overestimates such news and highlights it with the help of Russian agents abroad who make a big thing out of nothing.
DY: In your opinion, if the war ends now, how will Ukraine define its future relations with Moscow?
OB: It is important to recognize that Russia, even if it succeeds in destroying Ukraine, will emerge from this war much weaker than ever before. These failed policies of the Russian leadership were aimed at strengthening Russia and rebuilding its empire, but the reality will inevitably be just the opposite, whether at the military, security, or energy exports levels. On the military side, there is clearly a great failure. As for the energy exports, Russia’s breach of international law has brought about a unified position not only among the major powers but among other nations as well.
Of note, this is not the first time that Russia has violated international law. It has broken the law in Syria and now in Ukraine in what could amount to war crimes. We know that the fate of Russia will not be appealing. This is something that Russians, particularly Russian intellectuals are well aware of and publicly express through their correspondence with the Ukrainians or when participating in international symposia. They realize the deadlock that Russia has driven itself into, with no ways out of it. So, even if Russia managed to destroy Ukraine, it will not come out of that strong or unscathed. Rather, it will come out as a criminal nation, a fate that makes me take pity on them.
DY: In a recent statement, President Zelensky noted, “We are fighting a war on behalf of the civilized world.”, what does he mean by the “civilized world”?
OB: By the “civilized world”, he just meant the free democratic world, nothing else.