In an interview with Portugal’s Radio Renascença, I explain why Vladimir Putin’s “Victory Day” in Russia is far from a victory, analyze how he is scrambling to avoid defeat and stay in power, and describe the likely course for a Ukraine — and a world — which have defied him.
RR: Can anything extraordinary be expected from Moscow on the 9th of May? There has been talk of a declaration of war, even if it sounds ridiculous in the West. Could the declaration trigger further mobilization of Russian society and the state?
SL: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested last Wednesday that, contrary to some rumors and speculation, Vladimir Putin is not making a declaration of war on Ukraine. In other words: he will not announce a general mobilization.
It would be difficult for the Kremlin to defend that position because the official narrative, since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, is that this was just a “special military operation”. In the Kremlin’s version it was not an open and total war against Ukraine, but a ‘special military operation’ to protect the Donbass region.
Of course, we all knew from the beginning that it wasn’t true because the Russians were attacking Kyiv, they were attacking other cities, they were trying to overthrow the Zelenskiy Government. But even so, this fiction was being kept at home for the Russian population.
So for Putin to now say, “No, no, it’s not a special operation, it’s a war,” you would have to find a substantive reason for the change. What I am paying attention to is where Putin will be able to obtain “his victory” which, we already know, will not come with Russian troops in Kyiv.
Russian troops have already withdrawn from northern Ukraine. The Russians were defeated in the first phase of the operation. We are already seeing a second phase of the conflict, centered on eastern and southern Ukraine. The Russians are trying in Donbas to add territory to the Russian proxy areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But its progress on the ground is very slow.
Some small towns have already fallen into Russian hands, but none of the big cities. Russian forces, as we saw in the first phase of the invasion, have logistical problems, supply problems, troop morale problems, and they are facing counterattacks from the Ukrainian army.
In this sense, I do not believe that we will be able to see a general control of the Donbas by the Russians on the 9th of May, and that will focus attention on Mariupol in the south.
The Russian have finally allowed the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal steel works, but they have also intensified their attacks. They will want very much to force the surrender of the Ukrainian forces entrenched in the complex by May 9.
The Changing Course of the Conflict
How would you describe the current moment of conflict? Is it one of those impasses in which none of the enemies is interested in peace yet, but rather in leveraging a future negotiation with their advantage on the battlefield?
At the beginning of the Russian invasion, I think the Zelenskiy government would have negotiated if the question had been raised by the Russians. Ukraine was facing the first phase of what was supposed to be a crushing attack. The Ukrainian military was unsure if it could stand, not just on land but also against the force of Russian fighter jets and bombers in the skies and warships firing missiles from the Black and Caspian Seas.
At this early stage, I believe that Zelenskiy would have been open to negotiations on the status of Donbass, on the status of Crimea, on the concept of Ukrainian neutrality. Ukraine even made a formal commitment to withdraw its application to join NATO indefinitely.
But now that we’ve entered the third month of the conflict with the Ukrainians objectively defeating Russian forces, or at least successfully resisting the Russians, I don’t think Ukraine can sit at a negotiating table at this point with a series of of concessions to Putin.
The negotiating proposals put forward at the end of March by Kyiv, the most detailed proposals we have are “We are open to discussing a period of mutual negotiations of 15 years about Crimea’s future. We are open to negotiating security guarantees for both sides. We can argue about not belonging to NATO. But we will still have to have security guarantees from other countries.”
“Putin Will Have to Suffer A Significant Military Defeat”
What result can be perceived as a victory for both sides? In purely domestic political terms in Russian politics what will a Putin victory be? On the other hand, what will also constitute a triumph for Zelenskiy and the West?
A framework that allows the passage to the negotiating table — and I would not call it a victory, because the diplomatic route is complex after such a devastating military conflict — would be dialogue for an independent consultation/referendum on Crimea, even if it is de facto occupied by the Russians and Ukraine acknowledges that no one will militarily force Russian forces out.
Another possible launching pad for negotiations would be to say, in the case of Donbass, “These Russophile regions and Moscow proxies will be allowed and we will not remove the pro-Russian Ukrainians from power. We can negotiate a kind of federal or autonomous framework.”
I think this possibility still exists on Kyiv’s part, but Putin doesn’t want to negotiate. I have to stress that at no time after February 24, or even before the invasion, did Putin intend to negotiate anything.
For domestic political reasons, Vladimir Putin had already signaled to Russian society that he wanted to make Ukraine part of Russia. Putin hinted that this would be his legacy. And when Putin sends such a massive military force — not just into eastern Ukraine but trying to capture Kyiv, trying to overthrow the legitimate government and replace it with a puppet executive — it’s very difficult to get away from that initial narrative.
Putin is still continuing this speech by launching more forces into eastern Ukraine. He and his military commanders are still talking about how to control the whole of southern Ukraine, although personally I don’t think that possibility is viable for the Russians.
Putin will have to suffer a significant military defeat, that is, another significant military defeat, before we can talk about peace negotiations.
Europe and Ukraine
The European Union has tabled proposals for a new, sixth round of sanctions on Russia, including a total ban on Russian oil imports by the end of the year. Is there a risk here of overburdening the European taxpayer and the economy? What about the risk of disunity in the European Union? It’s already happening with Hungary.
Last Wednesday, we entered the phase of detailed discussions on the total cutoff of Russian oil imports by the end of 2022. It is already clear that it will not be an easy process. We have Hungary resisting the proposals of the European Commission.
I think Hungary will seek an exemption so it can maintain its Russian oil supply for a while. Bulgaria has also requested an exemption and Slovakia is seeking one for three years.
The most likely scenario is a EU ban on Russian oil imports, but not for everyone. Some countries will receive exemptions from Brussels because they are heavily dependent on Russian oil, like Slovakia, or — let’s be honest — because they have leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who is still very close to Vladimir Putin.
But I think the European Union was really able to coordinate diplomatic efforts so that the 27 members have agreed to five rounds of sanctions and tried to adopt a common political line against the invasion of Ukraine. And, I stress, many EU member states now provide significant military aid to Ukraine.
The European Union has never worked efficiently, but in this case, the response to the Russian invasion has worked. We expect tosee a significant cut in oil imports by the end of this year. Only then will we come to the big question, which is Europe drastically reducing gas imports from Russia to really hit Moscow economically.
What about Germany, which has played such a controversial role in the last decade, at least, in relations with Putin. How will history judge Chancellors Merkel and Schroeder?
This is a complex question about Germany’s relations with Russia and Ukraine. History will not be kind, for example, to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, especially about his connections with the Russian State via an arm of its economic machine, such as Gazprom.
Other German politicians, including Chancellor Merkel, could be seen as having strained too much to accommodate Vladimir Putin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, after Russian proxy regions were established in the east, and when Putin carried out a hybrid war for almost eight years: cyber-attacks, economic sabotage, and disinformation.
What matters in 2022 is what the current German government is doing to address this situation. There has been a lot of internal tension, because it is a coalition government, but there has been a wide-ranging debate.
The German government did not react quickly, it is true, but look at where Germany is now in the third month of the conflict. Berlin is involved in the sanctions and, despite its dependence, has promised in recent days to support the definitive cutoff of Russian oil imports by the end of 2022.
German officials have not yet committed to a timetable for cutting gas imports, but analysts believe that this break is predicted for 2024. Some observers will say that this is not yet a quick enough reaction, but it is a significant shift from the position of Berlin a year ago.
Germany is also now providing military assistance to Ukraine. For the first time Berlin is supplying Kyiv with heavy armored vehicles: anti-aircraft tank systems, the Flakpanzer Gepard, are being delivered to the Ukrainians. It is something that I could not have anticipated.
Is Germany moving fast enough for those who advocate a fully defensive Ukraine? I do not think so. But I think we can say that Germany is involved in this effort on the part of the allies, on the part of the EU to avoid being sidelined in support of Kyiv.
The US and Putin’s Chest-Thumping
How do you assess the very active involvement of the United States in this crisis? And should we be very worried when Russia threatens with the nuclear card?
The point is that when you give a bully a shove, the bully doesn’t bow down right away. The bully will beat his chest and say, “I’ll get you”. That is what we are seeing from Putin.
Putin does not know how to back down. He only wears the mask of one who advances. And so when he says, “We have these weapons of unforeseeable consequences, if the west directs its military aid to Ukraine, we have these nuclear weapons that are among the best in the world, we have options if Ukraine tries to join NATO” — when Putin says all this, he is beating his chest.
The reality is that nuclear weapons will not change the situation on the front in Ukraine. The nuclear card will not give Russia victory. And if Russia uses nuclear weapons, its political isolation from all countries — including countries like China — will be guaranteed.
Therefore, at this moment — and even though we always have to be concerned about a country that has nuclear weapons — I think that the situation is not yet of imminent escalation scenario for the use of weapons of mass destruction, even given the degree of destruction already recorded in Ukraine.
I think it’s important that this conflict cannot be seen as a proxy war between the US and Russia. But, of course, this is certainly how the Kremlin wants to see the war in Ukraine portrayed. This is certainly how Kremlin supporters in the West, including activists in the US and UK, try to frame the war. It’s all the US’s fault for trying to encircle Russia through NATO.
The point here is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Don’t forget. It’s a military force invading another sovereign state, with mass murder of civilians, with war crimes. A picture that needs a response, not just from the US, but from the international community. An answer that has to include countries like Portugal.
It must include countries across Europe. It must include countries from other areas of the world such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, Canada. It should also include trying to get other Middle Eastern countries, India and Pakistan to adopt an attitude of condemnation and defiance of the Russian invasion.
In that sense, I think the Biden administration, belatedly —– I say belatedly because the international community was very slow in supporting Kiev — is doing a good job.
Washington bet on effective economic sanctions that did not prevent Russian military attacks, but coulld put pressure on Moscow. The White House promoted a significant increase in military aid.
The reason Ukraine didn’t collapse is because of Ukraine itself in the first place. It’s because of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military, and the Ukrainian government. But the international community, including the US, has been instrumental in ensuring that, at this point, Ukraine still remains an independent country defying an invasion in its third month.
Can Putin Survive?
And Putin? Can this kind of autocracy survive war? Does it depend on the effects of sanctions and the risk of Russia becoming a pariah power in the international arena?
It’s always risky when you look into a crystal ball to see what’s going to happen beyond the front in Ukraine and to anticipate what’s going to happen next in Russia. It is a country where Vladimir Putin has greatly extended his personal and political power over two decades as a leader, a power expanded on the basis of his previous experience as head of the FSB.
It is a country where the political space has contracted, where the opportunity to express an opinion different from the official one — whether through the media, through opposition politicians, or through civil society — has been drastically reduced. Right now Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin still control the vast majority of Russian media. It is very difficult to hear or read a dissenting voice.
Putin and the Kremlin still dominate the Duma. Putin and the Kremlin still control most political and public space. Only in a hypothetical scenario, from a position in which Russia has suffered a significant military defeat or in a scenario in which the economy has collapsed in such a significant way, would there would be conditions for Putin’s inner circle to revolt against him.
We’re not at that point yet. We have not yet reached the scenario projected from the first days of the war, where we saw the ruble fall by 30% in a single day, where we saw Russian banks in crisis, Russian companies facing isolation from the international system, and multinationals abandoning Russia.
In Russia, Putin’s power does not disappear from one moment to the next. In other words, it is a marathon rather than a sprint to take power away from him.
For Putin to have a victory that leverages and justifies his stay in power, he has a window of time to finally come up with some sort of expansion of Russian control of southern and eastern Ukraine. That window is closing at a daily rate, in proportion to the west’s military and economic aid to Ukraine. Frankly, the pressure is mounting more and more upon Putin.
When window is definitively closed – and I think it will close – our focus will shift away from Ukraine to try to understand how Putin will continue to control Russian society when, in practice, he will be the commander of a defeated army.
A Hero in Ukraine?
On the Ukrainian side, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected president with three out of four votes. Where is your electoral popularity now? Four out of four? Is Zelenskiy “the Ukrainian Churchill”?Zelenskiy is not “the Ukrainian Churchill”. He is “the Ukrainian Zelenskiy”.
Last Tuesday, Boris Johnson gave a video speech in the Ukraine Parliament, patted his chest, and told deputies, “This is Ukraine’s finest hour.” Boris Johnson wanted to be Churchill speaking to the Ukrainian people. But a Ukrainian opposition deputy said, “look, this is not at all our best moment. We are living in hell. Ukraine is in hell.”
I think that’s the context of how President Zelenskiy should be seen. Zelenskiy had no previous political experience, he had only been an actor, a famous television comedian who campaigned as an outsider in 2019 and was elected. Zelenskiy took power in a country seriously divided politically, economically, and socially and with problems of corruption. Zelenskiy was still finding his way when the Russian invasion took place.
I think I am speaking now on behalf of my Ukrainian friends. Almost all of them, including those who did not vote for Zelenskiy in 2019, tell me that this man is being a leader, an impressive leader, the very leader that Ukraine needed at this point in history.
But it’s not just about Zelenskiy. My Ukrainian friends also talk about figures around the president, like the Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and the attorney general who has been talking about Russian war crimes.
It is the Ukrainian military, it is the Ukrainian people themselves and the military who volunteered to resist the Russian invasion. Who, despite the atrocities discovered day by day, fought to give the country back to Zelenskiy.
We don’t know how the war will evolve. And objectively, after the battlefront is closed, there is still a political card to be played going through Zelenskiy’s return to full command.
But at this point, the chapter being written is that of a President seen by his people as a hero at a time when the world needs heroes. Zelenskiy is the man who was right for the scene.
Predicting the future is complex, a difficult task, sometimes impossible. But how do you see the day after the end of this war on the political and economic level, both in Europe and in world geopolitics?
This crisis gives NATO a new lease of life and a sense of purpose. But, on the other hand, we have China, the country that most profited from globalization. China can get closer to Russia. After all, there is Taiwan. How do you design the future looking at Ukraine 2022?
I will place the answer in a broader context: the backdrop marked by all the turning points we have gone through in recent years and which have brought with them both man-made and natural disasters.
Iraq 2003 was a moment of catharsis with the American attempt to be the unipolar power at a time when, I think, the United States lost all possibility of being that global superpower. Then we go through the great recession of 2008-2009 that affected so many countries and whose consequences continue to be felt in many of them.
Then came the so-called “Arab Spring” with all the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa — these “springs” that did not have a happy ending.
We then went through the pandemic, we are still in the pandemic. We have the disaster of climate change in progress. And now we have the Ukraine War adding to all of these events.
What is the conclusion I draw from all this? That no country can win alone at the end of history.
For some time, the United States was blinded by this illusion of victory alone. I don’t want to think that Washington will continue to operate under this illusion. I sincerely hope not.
Now we probably have another illusion from Russia, with Vladimir Putin thinking he might be the winner at the end of the story.
We’re finding that won’t be the case. Others will say that China will win. Xi will be the winner at the end of history and China will be the dominant power.
But nobody rules the world. Whoever tries to dominate the world will end up getting a kick in the backside. So the second lesson that I take away is that at some point we have to go back to multilateralism, to global discourse about global problems. We have to go back to a time when we talk about a world that can agree on certain basic rights for everyone, a world where there is an injunction not to invade another country, not to kill, not to commit war crimes: be that in Ukraine, Yemen, the past in Iraq, or the present in Palestine.
We must agree that everyone deserves the right to health, education, and security. And we must agree that when it comes to something like climate change or global health after the pandemic, we are all in this together.
Because if we don’t all stay together, if we divide the world into Russia v. Ukraine, China v. Taiwan, Israel v. Palestine, we will continue in these cycles of conflict where no one wins. In this case, there is no winner — only losers.