Richard Sakwa, scholar and author of “Frontline Ukraine”, on the obstacles to peace in Ukraine.
As the Russia-Ukraine war opens a new phase in the Donbas, scholar Richard Sakwa on the absence of diplomacy; the Western media’s veneration of Zelensky; the European Union’s self-implosion over the war; and the crackdown on dissent in both Ukraine and Russia.
Guest: Richard Sakwa. Professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent. His books include “Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands” and his latest, “Deception: Russiagate and the New Cold War.”
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. Joining me is Richard Sakwa. He is Professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent. His books include Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands and his latest, Deception: Russiagate and the New Cold War. Richard, thank you for joining me once again.
RICHARD SAKWA: My pleasure.
AARON MATÉ: As we are speaking, we are nearly two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. From your perspective, where do things stand right now?
RICHARD SAKWA: At the moment it’s a type of stalemate. There’s movement on the battlefield; clearly the big battle for the Donbas is just about to get into full flood. But no one seems to be inclined to move towards serious peace negotiations. All the parties to the conflict believe that a continuation of hostilities will improve their bargaining position in the long term. Russia will seize more territory, possibly go as far as Odessa, but certainly maintain that land bridge from the Donbas all the way through to Crimea, and the full part of both the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (regions) as in the past. Ukraine feels that with Western weaponry it can push back the Russians and perhaps achieve some sort of battlefield victory.
What is most interesting is that the United States, which usually [as with] the Palestinian conflict and Middle Eastern conflicts, has always been involved very actively. Remember the shuttle diplomacy of Henry Kissinger for peace. At this stage it’s notable by its absence. And the implication is that the United States also feels that in one way or another it is to its advantage for this conflict to continue. The assumption being that as sanctions become ever tougher, that Russia will be debilitated and ultimately weakened as a serious long-term competitor. It was never a full-scale peer competitor, but nevertheless, the feeling is that a decisive blow could be dealt to Russia before the US pivots on to take on China more substantively.
And as for the European Union, it seems to have no strategic vision ultimately in all of this, other than constantly being shamed into upping the ante in terms of sanctions, even though it’s to its enormous detriment of its own populations.
And, of course, this also applies to the UK in terms of energy. We all know here. My energy bill has gone up threefold, from 100 pounds a month to 300 pounds a month, which comes to not much shy of 3,000 pounds a year, which is phenomenal. So, we’re talking about massive economic damage. OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] is talking about close to a recession, certainly in the UK. But this is going to go on. There’s no…I mean, in terms of substantive peace, what could be an offer. No one really has any idea of how this ends other than ultimately, now, continue slogging it out until some sort of stalemate is achieved.
AARON MATÉ: And so, what do you think that means for all these various parties’ goals? The goal of the US has been to, as you say, to weaken Russia. Russia says that’s not happening. It points to, for example, its ruble staying stable instead of being left in rubble, as many in the US were predicting. So, based on how it’s gone so far, who do you think is the most likely of achieving their core aims here?
RICHARD SAKWA: Yeah, thank you for turning to Russia. That is a whole special thing. One thing is, the war comes, as it were, but the absolute key question is what happens to Russia domestically. I don’t think there’s any immediate chance of a coup or regime change.
What has been happening, of course, is the intensification of Fortress Russia [strategy intended to make the Russian economy sanction-proof], [and] the trial of those members of Memorial International and Memorial Historical Association continues domestic oppression.
But on the economic level, some sort of central bank of Russia has been acting relatively jointly to move forward. So basically, what I’m now suggesting is that Russia is actually moving into some sort of a capitalist—well, not war communism which happened after the Bolshevik revolution—well, let’s call it war capitalism. And so, a full-scale mobilization economy, including mobilization of society and the oppression of dissent, and for a mobilization model which, of course, many have been calling for domestically at home. It means survival but doesn’t mean development. Yes, obviously the market niches vacated by Western companies as they leave, including retail companies, will be filled by Russian competitors, and so there will be some new opportunities. But all of this is, as I say, at a relatively low level of a mobilization economy rather than the developmental model.
AARON MATÉ: And just to explain the reference to Memorial, that’s a Russian group that documents Soviet-era crimes, if I have it correctly, and they were shut down by the Russian government around the invasion of Ukraine.
RICHARD SAKWA: Yes. There were two. Memorial had two wings. One was doing exactly that, investigating the crimes of Stalinism and of the Soviet epoch as a whole. And the second one was more active on the human rights agenda, and both of them have been closed down. They were established amidst the high hopes, the peak, of perestroika. This was [6:05] with job reforms in the late 1980s, and I’ll tell you, on a personal note I’d always felt that as long as Memorial continued to work, however tough the conditions may be, that the system or some of that democratic impetus which came in the late 80s, early 90s, was still surviving. Clearly now, those last embers are dying out.
AARON MATÉ: And in terms of the domestic repression in Ukraine, Zelenskyy recently banned a number of opposition parties. All of them, I believe, veering to the left or favoring negotiation with Russia. He did not ban any of the far-right parties or militias, including the Azov Battalion.
What can you tell us about the level of domestic repression that’s going on inside Ukraine right now against opponents of the government, especially against people who favor negotiations with Russia? There’s a recent article up at The Grayzone by my colleagues talking about just the number of mayors in Ukraine who have cooperated with Russian forces in terms of giving humanitarian supplies or have supported cooperation, how they’ve been found dead, and other people have been rounded up and detained. So, what can you tell us about that?
RICHARD SAKWA:Yeah, no, absolutely. A few weeks ago, eleven opposition parties were banned. And, of course, the main figure in all of this is Viktor Medvedchuk, who, interestingly enough, on the very day in which other events took place, he suddenly appeared. He seems to have been beaten up. He was in very poor condition, and of course, Viktor Medvedchuk was the leader of the main opposition party [Opposition Platform for Life], the opposition block, which he himself was put under house arrest at the end of 2021. [Petro] Poroshenko himself, the former president, was declared effectively a traitor, a counterrevolutionary in the old money.
But you’re absolutely right. That Grayzone article is a fascinating piece because it precisely shows the continuation and intensification of what had been going on since 2014, which is that the whole center—the spectrum, if you like—of Ukrainian politics has been pulled over to the right by these battalions. Constantly people argue, ‘Look, they only got two percent in the last elections.’ These are the presidential elections of April 2019 and the parliamentary elections later that year. But that is precisely a bad sign in the sense, because their ideas of this radical nationalism have infected the whole society—even though, as I continue to insist that until the war, the overwhelming sentiment amongst the Ukrainian people was for peace. That’s why 73 percent voted for Zelenskyy in April 2019. Unfortunately, like his predecessor, he was unable to withstand and to stand up to these radical battalions. I mean, numerically the quotient of dyed-in-the-wool Nazis amongst them might be relatively small, but the ethos is the key issue, and being absorbed into the National Guard means that, absolutely.
And I don’t know what happened in Bucha after it was retaken by Ukrainian forces. I think the Russian forces left on the 30th of March, and two days later we had the announcement of these massacres. Now, we do know that some of these battalions came in and they did declare that they were going to start purging, cleaning anybody who’d been working with the Russians while they were occupying the town. Now, I don’t have the evidence one way or the other. There is considerable evidence, though, that the standard version that this was a killing taking place by the Russian forces can be questioned. I’m not saying that the Russian occupation was completely without violence; of course, it wasn’t. But even these satellite pictures can be questioned as well. The position of bodies in relation to motor cars and so on. Who knows? We do need an independent investigation because a war crime is a war crime. Killing civilians is unforgivable in whoever and in whatever circumstances.
And this is one of the other things, of course. Yes, there have been reprisals. And of course, this was, you could argue that the whole population of Mariupol while battling—though Russia opened the door in the humanitarian corridors several times—that they were blocked by these militia. Because it’s basically been the National Guard and Azov Battalion down there doing the worst fighting that now cause a hold up in Azovstal, which [is] this huge metallurgical plant, and it goes down eight floors, and they’re refusing to surrender.
And, of course, even the maternity hospital bombing is questionable because a lot of eyewitnesses say that all the women were evacuated—all the people, personnel, not just the women, were evacuated—and that it’s on a little hill and it was an ideal position for the Battalion, and they took over, including the food—[they] stole the food from the people there. Again, an independent investigation is required. I have no independent source of information, just different versions which is, of course, one of the characteristics of this war.
AARON MATÉ: It’s interesting to look at the coverage now, where even the way the Azov Battalion is described. The New York Times once described it as a neo-Nazi paramilitary organization. Now “neo-Nazi” is gone; it’s been disappeared in the pages of The Times, and now they’re described as a far-right organization or a right-wing organization. Your comment on that?
RICHARD SAKWA: Yeah, that is part of the larger context, where ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ however odious and distasteful they may be. And that, of course, has characterized the whole Ukrainian episode disaster since 2014, in that Ukraine was clearly part of a proxy war on both sides, if you like; that this was going to be the battlefield in which those unresolved issues at the end of the Cold War were going to battle it out against…you know, there’s two versions of a peace order. [12:52] The ‘We are so Chinese’ version of Soviet internationalism, and the liberal hegemonic version in which you have NATO advancing, in which its human rights agenda—which is excellent, of course, if only they stuck to it—was going to become the universal one, and anybody who stands against it is not just mistaken but fundamentally evil.
And so, deep below all of this is, if you like, the culture of this, what I call it, it was a Second Cold War. Now it’s actually a full-scale battle or proxy war, and, in fact, Ukraine fits perfectly into the old model of a proxy war, of a Vietnam or an even earlier Korea, where the main protagonists try to avoid direct conflict, but they pile in the weapons and support each side, however, as I say, however odious your allies have been. Of course, you turn a blind eye to it. Of course, you could say many a Middle Eastern potentiary fighting wars in Yemen and elsewhere also gets away with it, which in many ways is more savage and catastrophic at this time than even the Ukrainian conflict, however dreadful it may be.
AARON MATÉ: And I have an article just out that goes through the history of the war in Syria, and I draw some parallels to the proxy war in Syria and Ukraine. And one of them is that the US is basically overlooking concerns that it’s flooding a war zone with weapons and not being able to keep track of where those weapons go. In the case of Syria, weapons that came from the US ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and now there’s a headline at CNN that says, ‘What happens to weapons sent to Ukraine? The US doesn’t really know.’
RICHARD SAKWA: Yeah, there’s plenty of pictures which I’ve seen, when one is doomed scrolling through the internet, of captured weapons from the west, and so we had Stingers, we had Javelins, we had the British ones, the NLAW anti-tank weapon which, of course, were captured, and that they haven’t performed particularly well on the battlefield, interestingly enough.
But you could also make the analogy with Libya, where we had the collapse of the regime and the vast flood of weapons that has now fueled war across the whole Sahel region. We’ll be lucky if the conflict is contained within Ukraine. Already we’ve seen attacks on oil installations near Belgorod and another within Russia proper. Yes.
So, of course, there may well be, as I’ve said they’ve been warned that supply lines may within NATO territory become a legitimate target. This is why they’ve attacked Lviv as well, because that’s a trans-shipment point. So, we’ll be lucky. Plus, of course, we’re not just talking about a spatial escalation but, of course, an escalation towards the lower rungs of the nuclear ladder, which if one side or the other is [16:12] really what’s up with Russia was facing massive defeat, its nuclear doctrine says if the country is existentially threatened, then nuclear weapons are… So, the dangers both in spatial and in horizontal terms is enormous.
AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you about Zelenskyy. I’m curious about your thoughts on how he is being portrayed now as this heroic figure, a modern-day Churchill; that’s the standard line about him. And also, your assessment of whether how serious he was to ever fulfilling his election mandate to make peace.
People forget this, but in 2019 he was elected with an overwhelming mandate, more than 70 percent of the vote, and his promise was to make peace to end the war in the Donbas, and he even vowed to pay a political cost for it. But then what happened, he came in and he immediately faces threats from the far right. They tell him that ‘if you make peace with the Russian-backed rebels we will overthrow your government.’ Some even said, ‘We’ll end your life.’ And shortly after his election I interviewed the late scholar Stephen F. Cohen of NYU and Princeton, and he said that unless the US supports Zelenskyy’s peace mandate, there’s no way that he can ever end the war on the Donbas, because the far right will just overpower him.
Stephen F. Cohen: You have a situation now which seems not to be widely understood, that the new president of Ukraine, Zelenskyy, ran as a peace candidate.
This is a bit of a stretch and maybe it doesn’t mean a whole lot to your generation, but he ran a kind of George McGovern campaign. The difference was McGovern got wiped out and Zelenskyy won by, I think, 71-72 percent. He won an enormous mandate to make peace. So, that means he has to negotiate with Vladimir Putin, and there are various formats, right? There’s the so-called Minsk format which involves the German and the French. There’s bilateral directly with Putin. But his willingness—and this is what’s important and not well reported here—his willingness to deal directly with Putin, which his predecessor Poroshenko was not or couldn’t for whatever reason, actually required considerable boldness on Zelenskyy, because there are opponents of this in Ukraine and they are armed. Some people say they’re fascists, but they’re certainly ultra-nationalists, and they have said that they’ll remove and kill Zelenskyy if he continues along this line of negotiating with Putin.
So, now along comes Trump, right? So, Trump makes a wrong-headed phone call to Zelenskyy about Biden and information. It was a wrong thing to do, no two ways of looking at that, but the more important thing is—and that’s why I’d like to see the full transcript; we’ve only been given a partial so far as I know—I want to know if Trump encouraged Zelenskyy to continue the negotiation with Putin, and here’s why. Zelenskyy cannot go forward, as I’ve explained. I mean, his life is being threatened literally by crazy fascist movements in Ukraine. He can’t go forward with full peace negotiations with Russia, with Putin, unless America has his back. Maybe that won’t be enough, but unless the White House encourages this diplomacy, Zelenskyy has no chance of negotiating the end of the war, so the stakes are enormously high.
AARON MATÉ: And, of course, the US policy choice has been well-known; they continued to flood Ukraine with weapons. They did not, I think we can credibly say they did not want to see an end to the war in the Donbas. But I’m curious your thoughts on Zelenskyy himself, given that he was backed by an oligarch who also funds the Azov Battalion, the Azov Battalion being one of the key participants in the war in the Donbas and very opposed to any peace with Russia. Can we say that Zelenskyy was ever serious about making peace, about actually ever fulfilling his election mandate, or do you think he made genuine steps that he was just too powerless to fully see through?
RICHARD SAKWA: I think he was genuine. I think that the aspirations for peace were mutual, both from the population of voters who supported him and he himself at that point, given his background and coming from the Russophone part of the country and so on. And the proof of that is that he had that meeting in Paris of the Normandy Format with Putin in December 2019. But even as he did that, of course, the Steinmeier Formula to fulfill the Minsk accords, which he was thinking of doing and then afterwards his chief of staff convened a meeting, so there were elements. However, but as you say, he didn’t have the US support, he didn’t even have European Union support, effectively, which is quite astonishing. Angela Merkel and [Emmanuel] Macron—much talk—but they really did not, because they were there at that Normandy meeting in France, astonishingly enough.
Bottom line about Zelenskyy: I personally, obviously, enjoyed him very much when he was playing the comic actor in Servant of the People. Fantastic show. I really enjoyed it. Therefore, we all had a certain well of sympathy for this man, who we may think that maybe life is stranger than art and that maybe this person would have an understanding. Who also, if you watch his interviews back in 2012, 2013, 2014, where he [speaks] in Russian fluent[ly], and he spoke movingly. He understood. Gosh, he understood your thing, and with a sardonic intelligence.
However, the tragedy of Zelenskyy is that he never really, ultimately, became an independent statesperson. He just didn’t. He failed. He failed even in his attempts to achieve peace, which I give him all credit for in that first year, but he failed. And the adulation which now goes to Zelenskyy, in my view, is fundamentally misdirected. Zelenskyy is not a serious statesman. He’s not. He is a failure on the most magnificent scale. If he was, even if he had a scintilla of serious statesmanship about him, leadership qualities, he would have easily averted this war. He had endless warnings, they say, from the US. We know the public ones, and allegedly the US and possibly the UK had intelligence information. Now we all know how valuable that intelligence information is going to be. But they kept saying, warning of Russian invasion. If they had any information, perhaps they fed it to Zelenskyy, but obviously they didn’t because Zelenskyy, until the day before the invasion, was saying there will be no invasion. With 150-odd thousand Russian troops it would not have taken much.
Everybody constantly criticizes me, and perhaps you, for failing to take Ukrainian agency into account. Yes, at that moment we would have loved to have seen more agency—more agency in terms of forcing a peace deal. Okay, we had this NATO-Russia and US-Russia peace treaties—European peace treaties—from December 2021 on the table. Where was Ukraine in all these discussions? Why didn’t Zelenskyy, at that moment—and I kept expecting something—to say, ‘Look, let’s sort this out.’ Instead of which all he had to do was five words, which he knew wasn’t going to happen anyway, anytime soon: ‘Ukraine will not join NATO.’ That’s all he had to say. If Putin was bluffing, call his bluff, but instead of which we had this catastrophic war. So, we have somebody who is not a statesman.
And I must say, if you read the speeches today, and his endless speeches which are given standing applauses, standing ovations and so on, they, in my view, are demagogy and populism of the worst order. I actually find them odious. I can’t read it. I’ve read many of his speeches, including the one at the Munich Security Conference just a few days before the war. It was awful in the sense it was filled with a primitive hatred, filled with a violent language of division. As I say, there is not a statesmanlike bone in that man’s body, and this is why he’s willing to see this war. And as long as he is in charge, this war will continue, because even when he began to talk about a peace agenda, immediately it was a trick, because he said, ‘Okay, we will have Ukraine’s neutral status, but it will have to go to a referendum,’ which, of course, the outcome of it, who knows what it was going to be? So, even that is not in good faith. So, I do not share the laudatory views. Yes, of course, the country is under attack, and he has been very brave. But as you say, simply calling for more weapons, he should now be calling for the United States to broker a peace to save the suffering of his people. And in a sense, it actually makes me quite angry the way that he is being lauded. And yet it’s over the bodies of… obviously Russia has the primary responsibility; it’s the invading, attacking party. But on the other hand, let’s have a bit of Ukrainian agency in all of this, if this is what people are constantly calling for. Go for it.
AARON MATÉ: It seems that at multiple levels, at every point of policy that could have prevented a war, it seems he was not interested in doing that. There was the final round of talks on implementing Minsk, whereas government refused to even talk to representatives of the Russian-backed rebels. The Wall Street Journal reported this recently, that on February 19th German chancellor Scholz proposed to Zelenskyy that Ukraine, quote, “renounce its NATO aspirations and declare neutrality as part of a wider European security deal,” unquote, that would be signed according to Scholz’s proposal by both Putin and Biden, and Zelenskyy said no.
RICHARD SAKWA: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. So, he bears a huge responsibility for this war. It’s my analogy in this is like, as I think I may have mentioned before, in a Chekhov play. If you have a pistol on the wall in Act 1 that by Act 5 you can be sure that it will have been fired. Yes, it was Putin in this case who pulled the trigger, but who put the pistol on the wall? Who created the conditions in which that pistol was going to be used? And I think that Zelenskyy bears a huge responsibility for this. It’s almost…it was a frivolous approach to the fate of a nation, and above all the fate of his own people.
AARON MATÉ: Have you seen any evidence to support Russia’s claim that there was going to be a Ukrainian offensive against the Donbas, against the rebel-held areas of the Donbas, and that’s part of why they had to intervene to preemptively stop that?
RICHARD SAKWA: Well, it has to say that this is one of those issues that the Western media seems to be peculiarly intense in denying the possibility of such an intervention. Zelenskyy says no, dismisses the idea. However, it cannot be so easily dismissed.
We know that in the week before the Russian invasion, Donetsk—these are the autonomous parts of Ukraine—were under intense shellfire. Donetsk city itself, and not only. And more than that, we know that Ukraine had…well, figures vary, but we’re talking about at one moment people said over a hundred thousand; I think the figure was closer to 60,000 of its best troops. And these are the ones that are fighting the battle of the Donbas with Russia, and they were dug in, echelon formation, deep, deep trenches, hardened positions, military and so on. It was quite clear that it was an option because, as you say, Zelenskyy refused to talk to his own people. The whole point of Minsk is the belief in Kiev that these were their people, and indeed the whole idea of Minsk is that these people were not going for separatism. And so, it’s a misnomer. They wanted autonomy within Ukraine. That was an issue, of course, as things evolved, but nevertheless let’s call them—and I think a good article argues this—they should be called autonomists. And Zelenskyy, this is again the fact that he lacked the autonomy himself to speak to these people. Because obviously he would then have got a lot of flak from the oligarchs, as you say, and his back[er] [Ihor] Kolomoisky in particular, but also from these military, semi-nationalist formations. So, he lacked the guts. I mean, he went to Donbas, and at one moment, when the forces said, ‘No, don’t talk to these people. You’ll be accused of betrayal, and we’ll have another Maidan against you,’ well, I mean, at that point he backed down, as we know.
So, can I just say one other thing? Obviously, the context of this war is the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, when Azerbaijan had this attack. And we do know that drones supplied by Turkey were used against the autonomists in the Donbas. So that clearly, the possibility, I mean, maybe Zelenskyy was right, that there were no imminent and immediate plans to launch an offensive, but that was always a possibility. What on earth were 60,000 troops heavily dug in with heavy artillery doing then on the border? And they were not there on holiday, ultimately.
AARON MATÉ: So, do you see any force inside Europe that could break the logjam? Obviously, the US seems very entrenched in its policy, not interested in diplomacy. That’s been made very, very clear. Is there any force inside Europe right now that you think could be willing to speak to Russia and take Russia’s concerns seriously, to the point of having a real negotiation?
RICHARD SAKWA:No, absolutely not. All those traditional interlocutors have disqualified themselves. Germany, of course, and Scholz in particular, was always the exponent of “osteopolitic” and engagement with Moscow. That’s gone because [of], amongst other factors, the nature of the coalition government in Berlin today. France, Macron, of course, is up for election this coming Sunday; of course, the second round after that. Perhaps Macron will be able to exercise more initiative, but ultimately even he, I think, is constrained by the European Union. And if you remember, of course, Angela Merkel and Macron tried to convey a meeting in June 2021 where the European Union could have exercised and acted as the honest broker. But they were vetoed by the Poles and the Latvians and the Baltic republics, and so we have a constituency in the EU. And, of course, the European Commission and Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell [Fontelles], the foreign affairs commissar, actually said, the latter said, ‘This will be decided on the battlefield.’ In other words, a battle to the end.
Europe has destroyed itself in this war. It’ll survive. Its endless talk of its unity and so on. It’s a victory, if you like, amongst the flames and amongst the ruins of a European peace project. So, no. And, of course, the UK is just piling on the weapons, and its policy is basically to look important, irrespective of the consequences. No, the only possibility is some external force. More locally we’re talking about Turkey and Erdoğan, who’s still got good relations with Putin and [is] a NATO member, so it’s got a certain credibility. We also…obviously China. So, the only way that Europe can get out of this mess, or the Euro-Atlantic zone could get out of its mess, is ultimately through China. And possibly what’s most been interesting lately is the way that China and India have swapped foreign ministers, have visited each other, and an extraordinary rapprochement taking place in Asia despite the battles in recent years on the line, a demarcation line high in the Himalayas. In other words, Europe has to be saved from itself by forces outside of Europe. One has to say, this is the catastrophe, not just of the post-Cold War years but of the whole post-war since 1945, the failure of that peace order of a most spectacular nature, the lack of European agency.
Now, you may know that I’ve been arguing for years and years for a pan-continental vision. This is…you could call it a Gorbachevian Common European Home vision, but it’s deeper than that. It’s a Gaullist idea of Europe—which, of course, doesn’t go down well in the United States—of some sort of pan-European ideal. And, of course, it’s not just [Charles] de Gaulle, it was also François Mitterrand. And I’ve always said this, that this is the way to go. It doesn’t exclude the European Union, but what it does allow and what I’ve been arguing for for many years is not just the institutional expansion of the European Union, which is dysfunctional in all sorts of ways given the fact it absorbed Poland and these revolutionist powers in the east, but what we needed was a genuine peace order based on David Mitrany’s functions [creator of the theory of functionalism in international relations]. In other words, you build on one level, say, a genuine energy partnership, and then you build trust in a neo-functionalist, and then you gradually build lines. But that never happened, this genuine functionalist agenda of a peace order. So, in other words, the attempt to build peace after 1989, after the Cold War, in a purely institutional sense with Brussels and Washington taking the lead, failed. And maybe after this war we really will actually have to have a genuinely new peace order based on functionalist principles which would establish…which would have to be outside of the EU. Because Ursula von der Leyen has shown herself to be…it’s been a disaster, a disastrous leadership in terms of this war. All it’s been doing is stoking and, in fact, acting precisely to prove the EU as a subaltern to the US in the conflict situation, and this is reflected, just to say, in the Strategic Compass [for Security and Defence] adopted by the EU on the 21st of March.
AARON MATÉ: And can you comment on the relationship between European public opinion and the policies of European leaders? Because I’ve been looking, and I’ve yet to see a country where there’s significant support for, basically, sanctioning Russia, undergoing extreme sacrifice in terms of energy costs, food costs, for the sake of a proxy war in Ukraine. But I could be wrong.
RICHARD SAKWA: Yeah, no. I think the public opinion, of course, is much under the influence of a media which, certainly in the UK, has been unremittingly…well, it hasn’t been informative. It’s been emotional, and of course it’s a tragedy. Obviously, there’s a scope for that as well. Human tragedy has been on a scale with Europe we’ve not seen since 1945. We saw it in the Balkans in the 90s, of course, to a lesser degree. So, that’s understandable.
What is perhaps most disturbing, and something which I’ve been thinking about a lot is, where’s the peace movement? What is interesting is that I’ve been involved with the anti-war movement, and we’re regularly…[Members of Parliament] Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Diane Abbott and so on, we are regularly condemned. And worse than that, the leader of the Labour Party in the UK, Kier Starmer, has announced something astonishing. It’s that anti-NATO sentiment and Labour Party membership are incompatible. Now this has never been the case, even when the Labour Party in the post-war Attlee government signed up to NATO in 1949. There were many, many voices opposed, and since then, of course, the Michael Foot wing, the Tony Benn wing, and then the Jeremy Corbyn wing. And the Labour Party has always been a [37:47] build church, instead of which it’s now becoming a neo-dogmatic sect. And it’s going to be reflected in the polling booths in the years to come.
AARON MATÉ: Alright, Richard Sakwa, any final comments for us as we wrap, what people should be thinking about as this war approaches its third month?
RICHARD SAKWA: I mean, this is just simply an unmitigated catastrophe, but I do think that people should all…we must understand how we got to this point, that it’s not enough just to blame others, of course. Putin pulled the trigger, and he bears responsibility for that. But Russia is also suffering. This all-out economic warfare against Russia, against the people. It’s very disturbing, this notion of collective guilt of the Russian people.
Now this is something which, as you know, international law has much to say about this, and indeed, Catholic social philosophy [too], and basically it is…all the Geneva Conventions say you do not hold a population ransom in a war situation, and this is what is happening now. Simple things. My friends cannot get back to Moscow. There’s no flights. I mean, this is just unbelievable. The level…we’ve so far had ten types of sanctions, each one you could then take individually along with some sort of a control panel, how far they’ve pushed the button. But the US is pushing for all ten buttons to be pushed to the absolute max. US, UK, I should say, are pushing—and European Union, one should say—are pushing for all ten buttons. We’re talking about financial, we’re talking about trade, we’re talking about flights, we’re talking about all these things, personal movement, educational exchanges, all of that has been pushed almost to the max. We’ve never seen anything like this.
And so, Russia opinion is divided. You may say that clearly there’s heavy repression. Now, if you’re going to lose your job, one can’t expect a huge anti-war movement there. But this is a moment of clarity because we are the social forces which could withstand. And that’s my first point for that.
And the second one is this extraordinary outburst of militarism. Now, this is what the anti-war movement is about. We condemn the invasion, of course. We condemn the war. We understand the conditions. But what we need to do is obviously to find a way out, and the only way to find a way out, if you like, is to examine the way in, because that would explain the context, and that’s just not being done.
And there’s social movements, and you could say, ‘Where’s the Left in all of this?’, and it’s almost, well, it’s negligible. But there’s still a residual in our various meetings. We had in my little town of Canterbury, 200 people marched from Westgate Gardens to Dane John [Gardens], but interestingly enough we didn’t…there was not a mention in the local newspaper, the Kentish Gazette. It was just astonishing, but [41:00] emperor Ukraine was covered and that’s good. I mean, I love to see they let them, that was fine, but it’s a selective character, and I suppose that’s the third point.
The media coverage of this is as bad as it was during Russiagate, and including the role of intelligence services, the way that information is selectively fed out to tame journalists and then put into the public domain and then an endless echo chamber. So, it’s bad, and I’m sorry to say, I fear it’s going to get much worse before finally, perhaps, people like us, our voice will be heard. Really, we have to find a pathway to peace.
AARON MATÉ: Indeed. And speaking of Russiagate, there continues to be developments from the John Durham investigation that further exposed what a scam Russiagate was. But those developments, of course, are being overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, and when that war is over, hopefully soon, we hopefully can talk about those developments soon, because Russiagate very much helps explain why we’re in this mess in Ukraine today.
So, Richard Sakwa, I really appreciate your time and insight. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent. His books include Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands and his latest, Deception: Russiagate and the New Cold War. Richard, thanks very much.