Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He wrote the book Ukraine and Russia. His writing has appeared in Jacobin, the Financial Times, The American Prospect, and The Nation. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
The United States and the UN both endorsed the Minsk agreement in 2015. But the West did nothing really to push the Ukrainians into implementing it, or, on the other hand, allowing the Donbas to go. Along with that was the offer of NATO membership that was not really an offer of NATO membership. And Ukraine also refused to offer a treaty of neutrality. I must make very clear: Nothing can excuse the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it must be said that we and the Ukrainians also missed numerous diplomatic chances of averting this war.
JW: Let’s talk about neutrality for Ukraine. It’s usually regarded as something that would be a huge and dangerous sacrifice for Ukraine. Is that the way you see it?
AL: No. But the main point is what President Zelensky has said about it. In the run-up to the war he went to the leaders of NATO and the West and said, “Can you assure me that, within five years, you will offer NATO membership to Ukraine?” And they said, “No.” But they also refused to offer Russia a treaty of neutrality, and Zelensky could not offer this for fear of his own domestic opposition. Then Russia invaded. Zelensky has now offered a treaty of neutrality. But he is asking for security guarantees—that the West will go to war if Ukraine is invaded again. That’s a very understandable request from the Ukrainian point of view.
The British, my own country, have been among the leaders of solidarity with Ukraine. But a British minister came out immediately and said, “No, we’re not going to offer any security guarantees to Ukraine. Sorry.” In these circumstances where the West is not prepared to take Ukraine into NATO, and is not prepared to offer any security guarantees, neutrality is the obvious way out. What the Ukrainians can get is a cast-iron guarantee that, if Russia breaks the treaty and invades Ukraine again, the West will reimpose full economic sanctions. But that presupposes that, in return for a peace agreement, the West has suspended economic sanctions.
JW: The problem of course is that the United States has imposed sanctions on other countries and then left them in place for decades: Iran for 40 years, Cuba for 60 years. A lot of this is for domestic political reasons. Can you imagine a settlement of the war without an end to sanctions? Can you imagine that America would abandon sanctions?
AL: At that point this ceases to be about looking for peace or helping Ukraine or bringing about a Russian withdrawal. It becomes a mixture of a desire to punish Putin and Russia, and of the American geopolitical agenda of weakening Russia—not for the sake of Ukraine but to strengthen US primacy in the world by crippling a rival and weakening a key ally of China’s—at the cost of innumerable Ukrainian lives. I really do not see how that can be presented as a moral position. And especially because the only way to build retaliation into a peace agreement with a treaty of neutrality is to threaten sanctions. That presupposes the sanctions have been lifted.
I support full sanctions, because I deeply oppose this invasion. But logically they should be lifted in return for a reasonable and acceptable peace deal and in order to make that peace deal possible. If we want Russian withdrawal, we’ve got to give Russia incentives to do so.
JW: What’s the alternative to a negotiated cease-fire and a peace treaty? What would an open-ended military stalemate look like for Ukraine?
AL: Quite apart from the criminal aspect of this invasion, it’s been handled with utter incompetence by the Russians. Having failed to capture Kiev and having failed to frighten the Ukrainian government into running away or surrendering, the Russians are now pulling back from around Kiev in order to concentrate on conquering the whole of the Donbas. This is an important point: Before the war the Russians did not hold the whole of the Donbas region, but now they recognize these breakaway republics. So now they’re going to try and conquer the whole of the Donbas. Then Putin can proclaim victory. The Russians might then offer a unilateral cease fire and say “These are our negotiating terms,” and then take a defensive stance and challenge the Ukrainians to attack them in the East—because then the Ukrainians would start suffering very heavy casualties.
And if we then provide tanks and war planes to allow a full-scale Ukrainian offensive, then that would escalate the war to another level. What then might happen would be yet another unending conflict like the Donbas since 2014, but on a larger scale, or like Kashmir, in which maybe after a while there would no longer be full-scale war, but there would be endless clashes. That would be very sad because I think that 90 percent of a peace agreement is already in place, especially a treaty of neutrality with guarantees but not security guarantees. But look, the Austrians didn’t get security guarantees in the Cold War era’s Austrian State Treaty of 1955, and the Finns didn’t get any either after World War II. The Finish example is important, because a key reason why Stalin did not try to conquer Finland completely and incorporate it in the Soviet Union was that, at the beginning of WWII, the Finns had fought so hard against him. That’s true of the Ukrainians now. I very much doubt that any Russian government would want to repeat this experience, because it’s been a military disaster for Russia, as well as an economic disaster.
JW: How do you think years of sanctions will reshape Russia’s economy and society?
AL: Russia will inevitably become more and more dependent on China. China will replace Europe as the market for Russian gas and oil. China will then also determine the price of Russian gas and oil. And this will be a partnership very much on China’s terms. Within Russia, I think it’s very clear you will have a much more state-dominated economy, much more state capitalism, if you will. And the Russian state will become much, much more repressive.
JW: Do you see Europe going without Russian natural gas indefinitely? They say now they want to reduce imports by two-thirds. And maybe also Russian coal. Is this a temporary wartime situation, or is this something more permanent?
AL: Over time, the Europeans will move away from Russian energy supplies. This will take time, because the alternatives are not there except for Europe’s coal. At that point talk of serious action against climate change goes out of the window. As far as gas is concerned, if America really develops fracking further and tosses any environmental concerns out of the window, then, over time, Europe can be supplied. Of course liquid natural gas has to come in tankers across the Atlantic, which means a colossal investment in new infrastructure, whereas of course the Russian gas comes by pipeline. So this can’t be done quickly, it’s very expensive, and it’s terrible for climate change. And once you’ve built a huge new LNG infrastructure, it’s going to be even less likely that Europe will move away from natural gas.
But if the Russians are sensible and declare a cease-fire and basically accept all the Ukrainian conditions except the question of the borders of the Donbas, then I think you might see a split between some of the Europeans and America over whether to accept the Russian terms.
The issue of the Donbas is the most difficult of all the elements in a Ukrainian peace settlement, and has the capacity to wreck the prospects of a settlement for the foreseeable future. The Ukrainian government has expressed a willingness to shelve this issue pending future negotiation; but has also—very naturally—demanded that as part of any settlement Russia should withdraw from all the additional territory it has occupied since launching this invasion, including additional territory in the Donbas. Russia, however, has recognized the independence of the Donbas republics within the entire territory of the Donbas regions (which it has not yet managed entirely to conquer).
This is why it seems to me that we need to move to an early resolution of this issue (unlike Crimea, the formal status of which can be deferred indefinitely). It also seems to me that the only legitimate way to resolve it would be to hold an internationally supervised referendum on a district-by-district basis across the region, with a majority in each district deciding whether the district should remain in Ukraine or join the separatist republics. Such a solution would satisfy neither Russia nor Ukraine, but I honestly cannot see otherwise how we can possibly end the conflict over the Donbas.