"Who will win this war? Economy", – Dmytro Sherenhovskyi

  • 04.04.2022

Interview with Dmytro Sherengovsky, Program Director of the Dnistrianskyi Centre,  for the Croatian media Slobodna dalmacija

A reconnaissance drone that has recently crashed in the centre of Zagreb showed how close Ukraine is to Croatia. On the other hand, we obviously know very little about your country. Many people tend to think that Russian invasion of Ukraine is just a war within the Orthodox world. But you are the vice-rector of the Catholic University in Lviv. So, how many Catholics are there in Ukraine, in which areas do they live, what is their position in the Ukrainian society? Is there any religious intolerance in Ukraine (as we see it in the Balkans)?

Civilization theories are often used by Russia to justify its aggression. The so-called ‘Russian world’ (‘Russkiy Mir’, or ‘Pax Russica’) is based on the false suggestion that Eastern European countries form a homogeneous Orthodox area where Russia constitutes the major source of power. This approach represents continuation of the Soviet thinking where all Soviet republics were seen through the prism of political, social, economic, cultural, etc. life of Soviet Russia. There was some logic behind this approach as Moscow exerted a major influence on almost all social processes in the USSR. However, after the collapse of the USSR such Russia-centric logic makes no sense. Both political and social reality of the former Soviet republics turns out to be different in terms of institutional structure, arrangement of national interests and economic performance, especially after years of independence. However, such a civilization-based narrative has become have powerful for Russian propaganda, especially for Russian citizens. Being anti-Western by nature, it justified the idea of a unique Russian state where an authoritarian regime is important to secure statehood against the demonized ‘collective West’. Therefore, every country of the former Soviet Union that made any other geopolitical turn than pro-Russian one is considered to be dangerous to the ‘Russian world’. Such imperialistic thinking is based on the idea that these countries are not sovereign but rather dependent on Russia, and the West has simply stolen them. Here a threat to Russia appears. We observe such claims in the case of Georgia, the same story now refers to Ukraine. Such vision was clearly demonstrated by Putin in a number of his public speeches and articles before the February 2022 escalation of the war on Ukraine. 

Again, the reality is different. Even in one of the pillars of the ‘Russian world’ concept – Orthodoxy, some complexity can be traced. While Ukraine is indeed a predominantly Orthodox country, and, according to the 2019 Kyiv International Institute of Sociology survey,  more than 79% of Ukrainian believers identify themselves as Orthodox, 9% – as Greek-Catholics (or Ukrainian Catholics), and more than 1% – as Catholics, there are, though, different types of Orthodoxy. Within the Orthodox community 45% identify their belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 15% – to the Russian Orthodox Church (operating in Ukraine as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate), and 14% do not consider themselves to belong to any specific Patriarchate. Thus, the landscape is rather diverse. There is why, according to the results of the ‘Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe’ survey published by Pew Research Centre in 2017, Ukraine turned out to be the only country among those with dominant Orthodox confession not recognizing the supremacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in protecting the religious rights of Orthodox communities.

The majority of Greek-Catholics and Catholics are present in the Western part of Ukraine.

Religious intolerance is not a major issue in Ukraine. According to the Office of the Prosecutor General,  in 2020 there were only 178 registered crimes committed on the grounds of racial, national or religious intolerance, and in 2021 20 cases of such crimes were registered. Moreover, the UCU School of Sociology presented a report on IDPs in 2015, studying their strategies of resettlement and problems of adaptation after the temporary occupation of Crimea and the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk region. The report showed that Crimean Tatars, being Muslims, faced, in fact, zero-level exclusion from local communities in many Ukrainian cities when they had to flee because of the fear of persecution.  I would like to quote the answer of one older Crimean Tatar to the question why he chose Lviv as his destination point (around 3 thousands of Crimea Tatars moved to Lviv in 2014-2015): ‘People are very nice here, they are polite and, most importantly, religious. It’s just easy to communicate with religious people. It’s like we speak the same language: we are Muslims, they are Christians. But they are faithful, they are not atheists. They believe in their own way.’

How did we suddenly find ourselves in this war? In your earlier statements (from a year or two ago??), you said that neither Russians, nor the forces of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics are interested in a war with Ukraine, and now you are in a full-scale war…

Yes, I should confirm that I was among those political analysts who underestimated real Russia’s plans and the risk of full-scale war. One of the barriers for my thinking was analysis based on rational behaviour, while this war turns out to be rather symbolic for the Kremlin. The ‘Russian world’ and imperialist worldview can partially account for this. The other part of the explanation is failure to make a ‘big bargain’ with the West in setting zones of influence in the bipolar world style, which the Russian diplomacy has been trying to achieve over the past few years. The other explanation is underestimation of Ukrainian military power and civic activism by many military experts both by Russia and by Western states. We can recall several articles written by such experts claiming that Ukraine would be defeated in the war within 2 or 3 days. This is the reason why our partners did not support Ukraine with lethal weapons during the so-called Russian training in 2021, and that, probably, made the Kremlin convinced that Ukraine would be left alone and would be an easy target. 

You are an expert on international relations and diplomacy… If War is merely a continuation of politics by other means, then diplomacy failed at the example of Ukraine (and Russia)

I do not consider that Clausewitz's ideas from the 19th century should generally be applicable to the present world. We have experienced two horrible global wars and built the system that makes it possible to have a dispute, not a clash. We have built the system that had to reject ideologies calling to supremacy of one nation, or race. But we have forgotten that the regimes sharing the opposite idea should be cut off from the benefits of this system. What we face today with the Russian case is that authoritarian regimes can't be trusted as partners. We may think that we can build economic or political relations on the basis of contracts or agreements with them, but they have no respect for the rules of the civilized world. They can pretend to be interested in cooperation and win-win relationships until that helps strengthen their regimes. Once their regimes are secured, they can easily go back to the old-style behaviour. Typical logic of a criminal. What do we use for villains? Punishment! If they smell permissiveness, they will continue to act. What was done by the international community to prevent Russia from criminal behaviour? Countries continue to tolerate, to give international platforms for Putin, to sign trade contracts and build pipelines. That lesson should be learnt better.

Could the war have been avoided if Ukraine had been led by a more experienced politician than V. Zelenskyy?

I don't think so. For Russia, independent Ukraine with the free right of choice is not possible. Putin has stressed it several times – independent Ukraine is a mistake, and Ukrainians are not a separate nation. Any other Ukrainian politician who would demonstrate the behaviour independent from the Russian worldview is a problem for their supremacy narrative. Russians do not consider it possible at all. You may well call it imperialistic thinking. Have a look at Russian propaganda – they claim to be fighting with NATO in Ukraine. They can't imagine that Ukraine has its own interests and aspirations.

Would the Russian invasion have happened if D. Trump had been given a new mandate in the White House? Or, would the situation be even worse?

It depends on the position of American voters. His populist approach to politics made him dependent on the sentiments of the ‘pure people’. Thus, the probability of more prompt US reaction towards the Russian threats could be high if Americans would demonstrate high interest in stopping Russia by all means. On the contrary, Trump could actually make a ‘big bargain’ with Russia. During his presidency, there was no overwhelming perception of Russian as the greatest threat, and that could possibly leave him a corridor for his own decision-making.  What is clear is that he would face difficulties in building an anti-Russian coalition with the EU partners.

Do you think that economic sanctions can stop Russian invasion of Ukraine and possible expansion of military operations on to some other countries? Russia has certainly prepared for sanctions, and, on the other hand, we see that Russian people affected by sanctions (and media blockade) now stand by Putin.

It depends on the type of sanctions. If they are the same as the recent one, I believe they can show Putin and Russians that Ukraine would not be left aside, and military support would not be questioned either. That could ruin their vision of Blitzkrieg. The Kremlin definitely was considering the possibility of sanctions, but they underestimated their scale and the speed of their imposition. The idea of quick, lightning war was definitely one of the motivators.

The number of refugees who have left Ukraine is close to the total population of Croatia. Parts of Ukraine remain uninhabited… how will that affect the defence, the morale of the defenders?

Such a great number of refugees has been caused not only by the war itself, but also by the way Russia is waging its war on Ukraine. I mean massive killings of civilians and destruction of cities. This is not a conventional warfare, but terrorism. However, recent polls show that over 90% of Ukrainians believe in victory in the war. There have also been some appeals made by the Ukrainian military to citizens that they should consider leaving active combat areas to give space for our armed forces to fight with no fear that civilians could be targeted by Russian missiles. Now that we face the possibility of a long-term war, the need for supporting the army is much higher. Thus, the economy in the rear should work to help the army in the frontline. 

Are you aware of the activities and performance of Ukrainian diplomacy in these days of war? Or does it all come down to the appearances of Zelenskyy and Klitschko? Do you have any information about the activities of Ukrainian consular representatives in the countries that have hosted many refugees?

The diplomatic battlefield is crucial these days. We need to keep our partners united, secure their active opposition to Russia and their support for Ukraine, provision of shelter and aid to Ukrainians that had to flee, etc. I consider the MFA copes well – we see changes in the standpoints of political parties that used to be highly sceptical about Ukraine. We see changes in voters' attitude to support for Ukraine and Ukraine’s EU and Euro-Atlantic aspirations in a number of sceptical countries. We see many businesses decide to stop working in the aggressor state. We can observe how the so-called neutral countries can’t be staying aside any longer now that Russia is causing tremendous violations and a humanitarian catastrophe  by this war. Such things can’t be caused by Zoom sessions and appeals from the Ukrainian Government only. These results require more systemic work.

Ukraine is obviously winning the diplomatic and media war today, but, despite international aid, Russians are still advancing in the military respect. Slowly and with increasing destruction and civilian casualties, but they are making progress. Who will win this war – the army or diplomacy?

Economy. If we manage to secure working economy and international aid, while the Russian economy keeps going into decay, we would have the necessary resources to support our defence and counter-attacks while the enemy’s offensive potential will be going down. If there is no possibility to ensure food security, public services, production and purchase of new weapons, we may face shortage of our military strength. I wish we had a diplomatic solution, but I'm sceptical about it right now. The interests and negotiation positions of Ukraine and Russia are diametrically opposite, so we should have military advantage on the battlefield to impose our conditions on Russians. Putin should clearly see he has no other option but to leave Ukraine. Diplomacy is needed to make our partners push more on Russia and firmly persuade the Kremlin that any possible use of weapons of mass destruction would cause immediate extermination of Russia. Then, if not Putin, his retinue could possibly step back. Now they have much broader options.

Can you predict how, when and under what conditions this war will end? Will this war change international relations in the long run and how?

The short answer is when Ukraine wins. But it’s hard to make any forecast now. I’m afraid this war enters the phase of a long-lasting one, so more damages, casualties, refugees to the EU will come. The only possible solution is to help Ukrainians win as soon as possible, which presupposes closing the sky to protect civilians, giving more artillery and means of missile defence and narrowing Russian options of waging warfare. This war has already changed a lot, but there is more to that. I think the securitization agenda will be rethought, the EU energy security will be transformed. Global chains of production will be changed. Food security will soon become a hot issue. In the long run I can foresee the rise in the relevance of the issue of security communities. I'm sceptical about transformations in the UN Security Council, but that’s what had to be done long time ago. Denuclearisation principles need to be updated. But I wish a major change happened in the understanding that any toleration of authoritarian regimes would sooner or later bring us to a war. So if we want to be sure that the ‘never more’ principle is secured, the global community needs to rethink the basics that enable regimes to benefit from existing international order. Croatians have experienced what it means for the society when criminals can enjoy a warm bath instead of having been stopped before they committed a crime. Peace and democracy are not the outcome, they are the everyday task of policy-making.