US, Russia, Ukraine: Bluffing our way to war

Russia moves troops and US sends weapons as fear of war mounts in Ukraine” – The Washington Post (Jan. 25, 2022)

Russia’s reaction to US and NATO leaves Ukraine crisis to fester on the brink of war” – CBS News (Jan. 28, 2022)

The US must prepare for war against Russia over Ukraine” – Defense One (Jan. 11, 2022)

Top weapons companies boast Ukraine-Russia tensions are a boon for business” – In These Times (Jan. 27, 2022)

As tensions between Russia and Ukraine threaten to boil over into a proxy war between Russia and US-led NATO powers, the war drums are once again beating from all corners of the military-industrial complex. With Russia, Ukraine, and the US all embroiled in their own respective bouts of domestic political and economic turmoil, and with all jockeying for position on a rapidly changing geopolitical stage, diplomatic saber-rattling may be a temporarily expedient way to boost support for each country’s ruling political establishment. However, whether they are strategic bluffs or not, there is a very real danger that these escalating threats could have irreversible consequences, including a full-fledged war that none of the parties involved truly want and that none are truly prepared for.

In this urgent interview, TRNN contributor Radhika Desai speaks to Dr. Oleg Barabanov and Dr. Boris Kagarlitsky about the current crises in Russia and Ukraine, the history of NATO expansion since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the possibility of bluffing our way to a major war. Dr. Oleg Barabanov is program director of the Valdai International Discussion Club, the academic director of the European Studies Institute at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Previously he was a senior research fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. Dr Boris Kagarlitsky is a world-renowned leftist writer, historian, sociologist, and political activist. A dissident and political prisoner in the USSR under Brezhnev, then a deputy to Moscow city council (arrested again in 1993 under Yeltsin and again under Vladimir Putin in 2021), he has run the Institute for Globalization Studies and Social Movements in Moscow, a leading Russian leftist think tank. He is also the editor of the online magazine Rabkor and the author of numerous books, including Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System and Russia Under Yeltsin and Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy.

Pre-Production: Paul Graham
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Radhika Desai:      Never has war been more surely warned of and less prepared for. For months, war drums have been beating in the US media. “On the brink of war with Russia,” proclaims The Wall Street Journal. “Possible Russian invasion of Ukraine,” cries The Los Angeles Times. “The US must prepare for war with Russia over Ukraine,” urges Defense One, a website that claims to offer analysis of US security. To top it all, on Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that he had evidence of a Russian plan for a lightning war that could take Kiev, although such evidence was not produced. By contrast, the Russian president, the Russian foreign minister, and other officials have repeatedly insisted that they have no intention of starting a war. Sober voices like Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center have been insisting that Russia does not want to invade Ukraine. Even the Pentagon and Ukrainian President Zelensky admit that there is no evidence of an imminent incursion.

While they nevertheless promote war hysteria, it is clear that neither the United States nor the West nor yet NATO is remotely prepared to face the war that they are conjuring up. The US has put 8,500 troops on standby. The British are sending lethal aid to the already unstable and precarious Zelensky government in Ukraine but they have ruled out sending troops, preferring to praise the bravery of the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people instead. Continental European governments, historically more inclined to trade with Russia than antagonize it, are making token gestures. Surely President Putin and the Russian army are quaking in their boots.

While things remain quiet on the Ukrainian-Russian border, long-running divides within NATO are clearly opening up into conflicts. Germany refused to send military aid to Ukraine. And though he was forced to resign for saying so, the head of the German navy insisted that there was no danger of war from Russia. President Macron emphasized that there was a need to negotiate, not fight. What the continental Europeans call their Ostpolitik has a long history. And today with American power in decline and retreat it is more important than ever.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will supply Western Europe with Russian gas is completed and is only awaiting some bureaucratic approval from the European Union. In this scenario, war is less likely to occur because President Putin wants it than because of miscalculation and misunderstanding, the likelihood of which grows with every new piece of hyperbole that emerges from the Biden administration and its closest national and media allies.

So what’s really going on? We know that there is a longer and deeper history to this and it involves some critically important things that are often absent from the current flurry of media coverage. Among the most important are the relentless eastward expansion of NATO since 1997 despite assurances given at the time of German unification that NATO would not expand an inch eastward; the civil war in Ukraine on the question of EU accession, usually seen as a stepping stone to NATO membership; US and Western insistence on keeping the civil war in Ukraine festering by emboldening Ukrainian governments to violate their commitments to the Minsk agreements that had been brokered by the Germans and the French between Ukraine and Russia; the stationing of NATO troops in the new Eastern European NATO member states, complete with stepped-up military exercises along the Russian border last summer and the impending stationing of more troops in these countries; the Russian response in the form of proposed treaties and a request for written assurances about US and NATO activities on its border.

Hello, this is Radhika Desai from The Real News Network. And to help us make sense of all of this, its history, and the current conjuncture, are Dr. Oleg Barabanov and Dr. Boris Kagarlitsky. Dr. Oleg Barabanov is program director of the Valdai International Discussion Club and professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He’s academic director of the European Studies Institute at the famous Moscow National University of International Relations, and for several years in the 2010s he was member of the working group on the Future of US-Russia Relations organized by the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University and the Valdai Club.

For seven years in the 2010s, he worked as a political expert for various Russian TV channels and at political talk shows. Previously, he was senior research fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. He graduated from the School of History at the Lomonosov University of Moscow in 1993. He is co-author of Valdai Club reports on relations of Russia with the Middle East, China, and the United States, on the role of values in world politics, on the role of historical memory in contemporary international relations on the global left and right, and he has authored six research monographs. Welcome to The Real News Network, Oleg.

Oleg Barabanov:         Thank you. Thank you, Radhika. I’m very happy to be here. Thank you.

Radhika Desai:       Thanks, Oleg. And our second guest has been with us before, analyzing the political situation which emerged upon Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia last spring. Dr. Boris Kagarlitsky is one of the best known leftist writers, historians, and sociologists of Russia, and has also been an important political activist in Russia, both in Soviet times and today. And he offers us a distinct left perspective on Russian politics. So welcome back to The Real News Network, Boris.

Boris Kagarlitsky:    Hello. I’m very happy to be here with you, Radhika.

Radhika Desai:      Great. Let’s start with a very simple question and, Boris, I’ll aim this one at you to begin with, although, Oleg, please come in if you want to add anything more to what Boris says. Why do you think the West and the United States are claiming that Russia is poised to invade Ukraine?

Boris Kagarlitsky:      Well, first of all, I think that there is a real danger of a war between these two states. And the danger is not coming really out of a particular conflict of interest between these states, though there are plenty of disagreements and conflicts including the territorial conflict. But, however, I think this is not that important. What is really important, because all these conflicts continued for a very long period of time and nothing changed now to make these conflicts more important and more urgent, more serious now, so what is more important is a tremendous economic and social crisis in both countries, in both states.

We see that whether we take Ukraine or we take Russia, the situation is very, very bad and it’s degenerating very fast. On the Ukrainian side there is an absolutely devastating social crisis, social crisis that is leading to the situation when, for example, the country is actually destroying its health care system. It’s systematically destroying its own educational system. It’s a very deadly combination of extreme nationalism with extreme neoliberalism. So extreme ethnic nationalism and a kind of cultural nationalism combined with a very extreme and very radical neoliberal reforms going probably much, much further than anywhere in Eastern Europe, and it’s basically destroying the fabric of society. So in that sense, Ukrainian society is facing a tremendous crisis. And it’s very important that the rating of Zelensky and his party is also collapsing. It is collapsing, and it seems that the state is, in many ways, failing.

However, if you are looking on the Russian side, the situation is not much better. It is better though. It is better. But it’s not that much better because Russia is rapidly going into the very same direction. It seems that every time Ukrainian leads are inventing something extremely stupid and reactionary, Russia leads immediately are doing everything to imitate the very worst of what is done in the West or in Ukraine or anywhere.

So, for example, there is a systematic attack on culture and education in Russia so that there is a real campaign against university autonomy with, for example, the rector of the university where I actually work, Sergei Zuyev, is now under arrest and nobody can even explain why he is arrested. It’s a national scandal that we have such a serious high-level academic being jailed, actually. And things like that happen almost on a daily basis, not to speak about what’s happening with the opposition. But all these political things are just the tip of the iceberg because the most important thing is that there is also a tremendous social economic crisis, that we see prices just skyrocketing. Public discontent is mounting incredibly. Opinion polls, even those done by the pro-government pollsters are showing tremendous decline of Putin’s ratings, and actually, United Russia, Putin’s party, in fact, failed miserably in their last election, though they had to use massive electoral fraud in order to retain majority in the Duma, in the Russian parliament.

So it’s a very typical station in Russian history when you are facing domestic problems, it’s a very good idea to start a short war and probably win it. So I think both Russian and Ukrainian elites are playing with this… Not necessarily with a war but this kind of war scare. And, still, I am not completely pessimistic because, first of all, I think using war scare for propaganda purposes is one thing and fighting a real war is a different thing. Just recently one of my friends returned from Ukraine and we compared the propaganda messages on both sides. They’re kind of symmetrical, symmetrical. If you turn on Russian television, every day you see, you get messages, you get programs describing Ukrainians as monsters, as fascists, as Nazis, and so on and so on. The very same thing you get on the Ukrainian side. You turn on Ukraine television and you get every day programs on Russians being aggressors, barbarians, presenting danger to humanity and civilization, and so on and so on.

So this is absolutely horrible. But one thing is propaganda, and another thing is fighting a real war. So it’s still possible, I think, to avoid a war. I think that even though people on both sides are reactionaries, but I don’t think they’re mad men. I don’t think they’re crazy. I hope they’re not crazy yet.

Radhika Desai:         Which is important to clarify, given that people in the Western media, Putin is regularly portrayed as irrational, as a gambler, et cetera, et cetera.

Boris Kagarlitsky:        No, I think they’re reasonable. The problem is that then they can miscalculate.

Radhika Desai:    Yes.

Boris Kagarlitsky:      You see, it’s a very dangerous game when you are playing with a war and you don’t want a real war, you want to play with a war, but you can miscalculate. You can make a wrong step. And irreversible things may start happening.

Radhika Desai:      Yes.

Boris Kagarlitsky:     And that’s the most dangerous aspect of the situation.

Radhika Desai:         What you’re describing is two societies which are already racked to the core by the pursuit of neoliberal policies and a whole lot of other bad policies, and on top of that, there are Americans who are intervening in extremely destructive ways, I presume.

Boris Kagarlitsky:     I assure you it’s really very destructive because, you see, well, the United States is, well, unfortunately it’s like yet another elephant in a China shop. And you see, if you’re looking at the station on the Russian-Ukrainian frontier, I should rather say there were too many elephants in the China shop.

Radhika Desai:       Yes. Oleg, would you like to add anything before we go to the next question?

Oleg Barabanov:      Yeah. First, I agree with what Boris has said on the economic and political situation in Russia. You have negative trends. That’s true. But me, personally, I don’t think that Putin is planning a real war. For me, it’s only kind of a diplomatic blackmail, because we’ve seen it already a year ago when there were some videos of Russian troops going to the Ukrainian border. There was some escalation of pre-war paranoia on Russian television, but the idea behind it was just to organize a summit with the US president, Joe Biden. And with this war escalation, Putin just provoked Biden to call him, and they organized the meeting, and everybody was happy. Because what Putin’s idea for me is not to be excluded from world politics, from world diplomacy, from the community of Western leaders, but to sit with them at the same table and trolling them, just trolling them, because trolling them from the Kremlin is not that interesting. It’s better to do it sitting at the same table and looking into the eyes of Biden, Johnson, and the others.

And, now, I think it’s another round of the same diplomatic blackmail, and he’s not planning the war. But what is important, I’d like to say, it’s not in black and white colors because if we say that Putin is bad we must say that Biden is good and why [inaudible]. But that’s not true.

For me, there are two versions of contemporary imperialism: The mainstream liberal imperialism from the US side, from the White House, and the liberal revisionism from the Kremlin, from official Russia, are clashing. And, in that sense, I think that the idea behind the US and the UK behavior in this situation would be just involving Russia into the real war. To let Putin’s past from diplomatic blackmailing to real fighting, what Boris has said. Because, remember… I’m just finishing, that after Vietnam, the US wanted the Soviet Union to do more or less the same thing. And it was the Afghanistan case. Now, after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with all humiliating scenes and videos from Kabul Airport, the Americans want Russia to feel the same. So they just attract Putin into the real fighting, understanding that there will be no blitzkrieg.

Radhika Desai:      No, this is a very good segue into my next question, which we’ve sort of just opened things up now. And I think in my next question I want both of you to go into the deeper history of this. So, as you know, because, Oleg, you spoke of revisionism, so what you are clearly saying is that there is… essentially Russia wants to revise the kind of situation that Americans have created, that American dominance has created, et cetera. So let’s dig into that a little bit more.

As you know, in recent months President Putin has presented two treaties with NATO and the United States. And he has requested, he and Foreign Minister Lavrov, have requested that the Americans give written responses to their written treaty proposals. So we are told that this response may be coming this week. Can you explain the rationale of this at the international level? Clearly, these treaties, the writing of these treaties, the proposal of these treaties, represents the culmination of the whole arc of US-Russian relations after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. For instance, rationale for requesting a written response is that the original assurance that the US had given, that NATO would not expand an inch eastward when Gorbachev agreed to German unification, was a verbal one, and it has been violated repeatedly since 1997.

And, today, when people even discuss this verbal assurance, they said, well, verbal assurances are not worth anything. Of course, Americans were very careful not to give anything in writing. So, now, the Russians are saying, all right, let’s put down in writing what we can agree on about what our mutual borders will be. So can you set the present conjuncture in a broader historical context? We’ll begin with you, Oleg, please.

Oleg Barabanov:        Yeah. I agree with you, Radhika, that maybe this insisting on written guarantees is based on that story from Gorbachev time, when there were diplomatic talks on German reunification. There was some verbal proposal, and they are mentioned, for example, in the memoirs of Mr. Baker, who was the state secretary at those times, that the Americans proposed to Gorbachev that there will be no NATO enlargement, there will be no nuclear forces in Germany, and so on. And after them, not all of these promises, not all, but many of them were, in fact, forgotten. And, in that sense, this story became quite famous for the domestic Russian propaganda as well. Because working for several years at the TV talk shows, I remember that there were many, many times, there was a trend to humiliate Gorbachev as a very bad, very not strong, let’s say, leader who just made everything to collapse our great country and so on.

And one of the topics to humiliate Gorbachev was exactly to remember these verbal promises. So everyone, or almost everyone in Russia, not only political experts, remember this thing because of this internal propaganda, anti-Gorbachev propaganda in Putin’s time.

That means that now we want, or the Kremlin wants, something written. But what was quite interesting was that the Russian foreign ministry made public the Russian proposal of the treaty, which, for me, is a real kind of ultimatum. So, you the US must not enlarge NATO, you must get out of Ukraine, and after that we hope that we will be good too. In that sense, there were no Russian obligations of that treaty. So it was a very strong or one-sided proposal of the diplomatic treaty. And, for me, it was very strange that it was officially published because, sure, if you have some treaty finally signed, I don’t think that you have anything, but if, sure, it will be much more moderate, much more balanced. And in that sense, everybody can see that the Kremlin, Putin, and Lavrov, his foreign minister, just lost the game.

And, for me it means – Because they are not foolish people, they are quite rational in that sense – To publish their proposal of the treaty was to blackmail, just to blackmail, just to push the US side to the barrier and nothing more. It’s also interesting that they became immediately blackmail and it was published, I think, at the end of November, beginning of December last year, and they said, answer immediately, react immediately, otherwise we’ll pass – It was a new term in the Russian political slang, we’ll pass to military technical measures. What does it mean, go to the real war or just another step of blackmailing?

So the Americans just said no to almost all of Putin’s proposals and now they are just inviting him to start a war. What’s the question? So if he must keep his words, he must start the war.

Radhika Desai:      Right. I think you are quite rightly pointing to the internal dynamics of the Russian situation, but maybe both you and Boris can also dwell… I mean, do you think that what’s happened over the last 30 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the advancement of NATO, et cetera, does it have no implications for the Russian state and its security? Is there nothing to change? Is there nothing to revise in this?

Boris Kagarlitsky:      Well, let me say a few words. First of all, of course, it’s very clear that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tremendous disaster. Among other things – I’m not even speaking about military and diplomatic aspects of the problem – Among other things, it was an economic disaster because it led to breaking economic ties and productive leagues and cooperation networks around the former Soviet Union, which led to the enormous economic collapse in all 15 republics, now all 15 states, of the former Soviet Union. By the way, including those ones which are now pretending to be part of the West like Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, who also faced a real collapse of their economies.

And, first of all, there is one big problem of economic integration, and I think the main problem, of course, is not on the military side. Of course we can say that there are a few things which are absolutely scandalous. In that sense, the presence of foreign troops, say, in the Baltic republics is very much a scandalous thing. And, of course, we can say that the governments of the Baltics may justify that through, again, the same Russia scare, right? The same Russia scare, saying that having Western troops or having NATO being their partner, being themselves members of NATO is a guarantee of their independence. But the irony of the situation is that Russia already guaranteed their independence. It was Russia which was actually quite ready to recognize these independent states and there was no attempt on the Russian side to carry out any kind of aggression against them.

On the contrary, you can see if you… I’ve been to the Baltics quite a lot of times since their independence. There is a systematic aggressiveness on the side of their governments against Russia which is very provocative. Again, I think it’s more like an attempt to blackmail the West. There was no reason to think that Estonia could be aggressive against Russia. It’s very funny, and there’s no way that you can expect Estonia to present any threat to Russia. But I think this provocative behavior on the side of the Baltic states is very much an attempt to blackmail the West and force the West into helping them, into sending more economic, political and so on aid to these countries to pull them out of the crisis and so on.

So, it’s a very interesting phenomena that they pretend to be in a conflict with Russia, but the main thing is that they are actually trying to get more attention from the West.

Radhika Desai:     I think, Boris, let me dig into that a little bit –

Boris Kagarlitsky:      And it’s very similar with Ukraine. I think it’s very similar with Ukraine.

Radhika Desai:           Exactly. So let me dig into that a little bit because the logic is the same and you are raising a really important point. You said two things that are really important. Number one, it’s not just about military issues, it’s about economic issues. And by economic issues, it’s very clear that what the West wants, what the Americans want, what even the EU wants is to keep these former Soviet and former East European communist countries in the Western capitalist ambit in which they play certain subordinated roles in the larger economic structure of these countries. That’s the first thing you said.

The second thing you said is that these countries have become sort of… They almost seem to want to blackmail the West into being antagonistic towards Russia. But there’s a third thing which links these two things, which is that in order to keep Ukraine, the Baltic republics, all the other Eastern European countries in the Western ambit, the West has supported and maintained in power certain ruling elites which are precariously positioned in relation to their own populations and reliant completely on Western help and aid.

Boris Kagarlitsky:      Radhika, I should add one thing. It’s the same policy on the Russian side because just recently Russia did everything to keep Alexander Lukashenko in power, though the population of Belarus didn’t want him. And the same thing is now happening in Kazakhstan and so on. So, ironically, I don’t see much of a difference here. I think the behavior of these leaders and oligarchies on both sides of the conflict is very much the same. And, to make things worse, they are absolutely sure that there is no other way to behave, that what they’re doing is the only reasonable and rational and only possible thing to do. So they don’t think in terms of potential alternatives or options or being more flexible or… I’m not thinking or not saying even about being a little bit more democratic. It is not an option. The option is to do what they’re doing and nothing else.

Radhika Desai:       Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oleg, would you like to add anything to this before we go on?

Oleg Barabanov:      Yeah, I agree with it. And I just want to enlarge our picture a bit, add in China, because if you don’t mean a separate question on Russia-China, I’ll tell it now. On China, I think that we see quite clearly that the United States are trying now to involve the Chinese also into this conflict, at least indirectly, because the Olympic Winter Games is coming in Beijing in a few days, practically. And we remember the previous Olympic Summer Games which were held in Beijing in 2008. They were, exactly at the day of the official beginning of those Olympic Games, there was the start of the Georgian war – I mean not the US state of Georgia but the post-Soviet Republic of Georgia – Between Georgia and Russia. So that was shown for the whole world, for the whole global public opinion, that Russia is breaking that holy Olympic peace, the holy Olympic truce mentioned from ancient Greece, and China is unable to influence Russia not to do it.

And now we already read on some Western mainstream news media, Bloomberg, for example, and some others, that Xi Jinping, for them, for their version, called Putin, asking him not to start the war during the Olympic games in Beijing. So if it will be so, sure, that it will show that Putin has no respect towards Xi Jinping, that China has no influence on Russia and so on, and China is very humbled not to guarantee not making the world during its own Olympic games. And just yesterday in some, I think, pro-Ukrainian telegram channels here in Russia, there was firstly named a possible day of the start of the war. That’s 18 February. And remember that the Beijing Olympics will continue until 20 of February. So maybe it’s another provocation, maybe it’s pro-Ukrainian propaganda. I could think so. But if yes, it means that if the war will start during the Beijing Olympics it will be hugely negative on the Chinese public opinion in the world. That’s the question.

Radhika Desai:        Although of course war could start because of Western actions as well as Russian actions.

Oleg Barabanov:      Sure, sure, sure, sure, sure.

Radhika Desai:         It’s not just a reflection… But, yes. No, those are very interesting points. In fact, let me take this forward then, because we touched on the Baltic… The overall logic of the relation between Russia, Ukraine, and Western countries. So, now, let me ask you more concretely, what are exactly Russia’s interests in Ukraine? Under what circumstances do you think Russia might take military action in Ukraine? And what is the best solution for the Ukraine conflict, in your view?

Boris Kagarlitsky:       Well, I think the most important thing now is that the war shouldn’t begin. I hope it’s not going to start because it’s going to be quite a disastrous event in every sense. And there are no good guys here. You must understand that. And the situation is very different compared to what we have seen in 2014 when there was a so-called Crimean spring and the so-called Russian spring. You shouldn’t forget that episode of 2014 when there was a coup d’état in Ukraine. Let’s be clear. It was a coup d’état. They kicked out an elected government which was democratically elected. It was a corrupt government, no doubt about it, the Yanukovych government was corrupt. But the one which came after was no better and it was installed through non-democratic, non-electoral measures. And, of course, they confirmed, le fait accompli, already. The accomplished fact. They confirmed it through elections but elections which they didn’t let real opponents of the coup d’état to participate.

So in that sense we shouldn’t forget what happened in Ukraine in 2014. And then there was a real uprising in the Russian-speaking Eastern and Southern areas of Ukraine, which was not just about language or nationality but was also against the dominance of particular oligarchy groups based mostly in Western Ukraine, but also of course there was an ethnic element to it.

And one important aspect here is that the uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk was very democratic. They established popular, well, organs, the structures of popular power and so on. So, well, there were elements of a real revolution or revolutionary movement in that protest. And, by the way, what happened later was that, on the one hand, there was a tremendous support for that movement inside Russia. And, by the way, inside Ukraine, there were quite a few people who were supportive as well, including ethnic Ukrainians. But then there was this war of 2014. Crimea was annexed and taken over by Russia and Luhansk and Donetsk were actually dropped. They had to fight on their own. Of course, the Russian military gave them quite a lot of support in the long run, but the price they had to pay for that support was actually to surrender their own social program, their own social movements, which were actually completely destroyed.

Now, if you are looking at what’s happening in Donetsk and Luhansk, people are extremely frustrated and unhappy with the outcome of that movement, and people had to surrender their achievements, kind of the price to pay for military support from Russia. And they became also oligarchic states like Russia and Ukraine just but much smaller and poorer. So there was no good outcome.

And while in 2014 there could have been quite a lot of support if Russia went to war with Ukraine in order to protect these two republics, no doubt about it. There was a real enthusiasm. But not anymore, because now there is not much to protect, not much to defend. It’s becoming quite a traditional imperialistic war over the territory. Nobody cares about people. Nobody cares about the population and the economy and the interests of these regions. It’s just like, well, like every imperialist conflict. It’s just a piece of land. And in that sense, this emotional side of this conflict is very different. It evolved throughout these years and I think this is something to be taken into consideration very seriously.

So, coming back to your question, what do I think about Russian-Ukrainian relations? At this stage, the best thing to do is to do nothing, just to avoid a war. But in the long run, of course, I think some kind of realignment and in the long run even some kind of coming together of these two countries is absolutely essential for both of these countries to prosper, because for the economic, cultural, historic reasons, they have to be together in one form or another. To me it’s very clear.

But with current governments, on both sides, it’s not possible. With the current economic system on both sides, I don’t see how it can happen. And, finally, the policy of Russian oligarchy towards Ukraine is purely imperialistic and it means that Russia cannot become popular with the Ukrainian population, given this kind of policy. You see? What we have to do is to change the situation in Russia itself. Russia must change. Russia must become more attractive, more democratic, more prosperous, more of a welfare state, by the way. And if we achieve that, I assure you, it will become more popular with the population of Ukraine or Kazakhstan and others. And that’ll be the key. That should be the key.

Radhika Desai:       That’s a really important –

Boris Kagarlitsky:      Not the weapons, not the arms, not the tanks, and guns, and aircraft, but social policies, democracy, and so on.

Radhika Desai:        Before we go to Oleg for his contribution to this question, you raised a very important point, and I just wondered if you could say a bit more about what do you think it will take to make Russia more democratic, more social democratic, more welfarist, et cetera, more of an attractive society?

Boris Kagarlitsky:       Well, Radhika, it doesn’t depend on us. We are doing our best to achieve that.

Radhika Desai:            Okay.

Boris Kagarlitsky:      But our possibilities, our chances, and our force are limited, unfortunately.

Oleg Barabanov:         First, just to continue on your and Boris’s last point, what to do, how to make Russia more democratic, and I agree, come to share about something like this, yeah? And maybe this is one of quite dangerous, in fact, intentions of the White House of the United States is exactly to involve Russia into the war. Then the war will not be brief, will not be victorious. Then there’ll be victims, that soldiers, coffins returning back to mothers, and so on, and there is some intention to, I think, that it could provoke their internal domestic disturbances within Russia.

But fortunately or unfortunately we see that their police forces, the police friends of the regime, are quite strong. We saw it a year ago during Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment and all things. And we also saw the passivity of Russian society. So, in that sense, if there will be the war and the Kremlin will be losing the war, there will not be, unfortunately or fortunately, a democratic revolution written in Washington, DC, written on this scenario in the White House. It will be just a hardening of the regime, strengthening of the regime, and the everyday life for the Russian people, for the Russian civil activists, became much, much worse than it is now during the war time and so on.

So that could be a huge miscalculation on the US side if they are attempting to do so [crosstalk].

Radhika Desai:        No, that’s a very [inaudible]…

Boris Kagarlitsky:    Well, here I may somewhat disagree with Oleg, though we usually agree on almost everything. I think if there is a political social change in Russian… Political change comes first of course, I am not very pessimistic. I think on the contrary, that even inside the Russian bureaucracy there are quite a few people who are interested in, well, some social and political change and somewhat to democratize the system. I’m not going to say that they’re very serious proponents of democracy, but they feel that things are kind of going wrong, that things are going in the wrong direction, and more welfare and more social planning and so on, probably a bit more mixed economy is not such a bad thing to have.

So, in that sense, there is a segment of even current Russian elite – Not to speak about some kind of revolution – But even within the current Russian elite, there are segments which I shouldn’t say are progressive but at least are kind of keen on some progressive issues, at least some of them. Not necessarily taking them as a real complex of progressive measures, but at least on some progressive measures. And these people are extremely worried and they’re not very happy with what’s happening right now.

And, of course, they’re waiting for their moment. They are waiting for their moment, and, well, I traveled around Russia quite a lot recently and I know what provincial bureaucrats are thinking, for example. They’re extremely unhappy with what’s going on. And they’re kind of technocratic, they’re not democrats. But from their technocratic viewpoint, things are going in the wrong direction. That’s one thing. So they need to wait for some moment which will be their moment. At some point, they will come out. This is one thing.

But the other thing where I will totally agree with Oleg is that even if there is a very radical change in Russia, it’s not going to make Russian society more pro-Western, because you have really democratic elections in Russia, do you think that pro-Western liberals are going to win this election? Of course not! They’re not going to win it. On the contrary, they’re going to be badly defeated in a free election. And in that sense, really, if somebody in the West thinks that democracy in Russia means Russia being pro-Western, they’re totally wrong.

Radhika Desai:        Absolutely. And, indeed, Russia has seen what being pro-Western results in during the Yeltsin years, so I think Russians are well advised to be cautious of what American intentions are. Because of the United States, as you would rightly agree, I think, Oleg, more or less said so, would love to return Russia to a position of essentially subordination to its broader economic and political and military system.

We’ve been talking for a while now, and we should probably bring these things to a close, so let me… For now anyway, we should have you back, but for now, let me bring these things to a close, because I think we’re going to be talking about Ukraine and Russia for a while.

Last couple of questions. First of all, obviously it’s very clear that while we have a fair idea of what American designs for Russia are for Ukraine and for the entire post-Soviet and post-communist space are, what about the Europeans? They’ve always had a slightly distinct politics. We know that Nord Stream is ready, we know that the Europeans, especially the continental Europeans, aren’t obviously eager to jump onto the war bandwagon, et cetera. So what do you think are their intentions, and how do you think their role in this present scenario will play out?

Boris Kagarlitsky:      I think that, first of all, there is a serious misunderstanding with the function of the so-called Nord Stream 2. Because when we’re speaking about the Nord Stream project, we shouldn’t forget the difference between Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2. Because the Russian public thinks that Germans need Russian gas for themselves. It’s not true. Germany already has enough Russian fuel, enough Russian gas. They may need additional gas from Nord Stream 2 to resell it to other European countries and to get extra profits from reselling. It’s speculation. It’s speculation.

However, there is also the other side. If there is too much gas coming in, it’s also bad because the price will go down. So in that sense, we must understand that Gazprom works hand in glove with German energy companies. And I’m not sure there is a problem there, that there is a conflict. Possibly they are both playing the same game, just pretending to play different games so that Gazprom is also quite happy with the current situation.

And, yes, if the Nord Stream 2 comes to function later than planned it’s not necessarily bad news for Gazprom, because I suppose… I cannot prove at this point, but I suppose that they also benefit from the speculation of the gas market. They established quite a lot of small enterprise daughter companies abroad, which are actually hiding money that they are getting from all these operations, and now they don’t even have to do that because Putin signed an agreement… Sorry, Putin signed a law that Russian companies which gain money, get money abroad, don’t have to repatriate their profits from abroad. They don’t have to repatriate their hard currency which they earned abroad, which was a law earlier. So now they can do it even legally, because earlier they had to go through daughter companies with some strange structures which were actually hiding their money which they earned abroad, hiding them in Swiss or German banks. Now they don’t even have to hide. They’re doing that openly.

So I think, you see, again, we have to think in terms of very pragmatic interest. They’re not crazy people, they’re extremely pragmatic people, they’re extremely practical. And I think they will find a way to keep their profits. They’ll find a way to keep doing their business no matter what happens.

And, of course, nobody in Western Europe wants a war. This is also another good thing, that Western Europe definitely plays against this kind of military hysteria. But even if anything happens, even if the worst thing happens, they’re going to keep their business running. I think they’re extremely practical.

Radhika Desai:       And I was also reading somewhere that the French, in any case, want to sell more arms to the Russians, so there you go. But, Oleg, please come in and add –

Boris Kagarlitsky:       [to any] side [to any] side. Russians, Ukrainians. Anything.

Oleg Barabanov:        Yeah. I agree. First, clearly, let’s divide the UK from the continental Europe, yeah? That’s clear. But after Brexit, after the British withdrawal from the European Union, the situation within the EU became a bit more consolidated because the UK was always the troublemaker, the American [problem], the American Spy, and so on. There was a kind of mistrust in relations between continental Europe and the UK. Now it’s all over, and if you look at the Western continental countries like Germany, like Italy, like France, they all have quite stable, not brilliant, surely, but quite stable relations with Russia. Both Germany and Italy have traditionally, from Soviet times, strong economic relations with Russia. There is not only the Russian gas and oil coming there, but also Russia is the market for their industries or their machinery, and so on.

For France, there are remains of de Gaulle… Gaullist political dialogue. They are still badly but continuing. So all of these larger, Western, continental countries are in favor of continuing the dialogue with Russia. They are saying, okay, we understand that Putin is bastard, that Putin is maybe going mad, in the medical sense of view, but we still have Russia at our borders, [crosstalk] –

Boris Kagarlitsky:      Even if it does, Oleg, even if it does, it doesn’t matter. From the point of view –

Oleg Barabanov:       [crosstalk].

Boris Kagarlitsky:       …Of business. It doesn’t matter.

Oleg Barabanov:        True.

Radhika Desai:      I think what you mean is that in Russia, at the moment, it’s not about Putin. There’s a whole system which will continue to function without Putin.

Oleg Barabanov:        Yeah, yeah. And there is also a new answer, let’s say, a thing in the now foreign propaganda from Russia that after Putin it will be worse because there will be a dictator much worse than Putin.

Radhika Desai:         Yes. [inaudible].

Oleg Barabanov:     Also, but just putting this aside, there is another term made in the US and the UK, Russia understand this, so that people may be not openly corrupted and openly bought by the Kremlin, but the people who may be naively following the programming logic and became a kind of Putin’s agents in the West. And exactly if we use this term, I don’t like it, sure, but in Germany, in France, in Italy, there are many serious politicians who are Russia understanders in a good sense of the whole because they understand that they have to cooperate.

On the other side, we have Central and Eastern European countries, the Baltic countries, which, sure, have their own tragic history of relations with imperialist Russia and so on. And they’re saying it’s useless to understand Russia. It’s useless to continue the dialogue because Putin is just playing, blackmailing. He will not fulfill any obligations. He will not fulfill any of his promises. So it’s useless. And, in that sense, the EU became a bit divided, much less divided than it was with the UK presence, but still.

And I think it is also interesting to see the transatlantic relations between continental Europe and the US. Because we all remember the glorious Trump times, yeah? When there were all scandals, all the meetings of NATO and all the US-Germany, US-France summits, they became scandalous with scandalous videos, with moving this thing from Macron’s suit and so on, humiliating Merkel… And Trump was pressing very hard for the Europeans to pay 2% of their GDP on military spending and so on. And after Trump became Joe Biden who became a benevolent emperor, a good emperor. So I imagine that he could say, now, let’s forget that terrible Trump, that mad Trump. Now it will become all as usual.

But one of the things that is usual is that the US leads and Europe follows. And it’s exactly now that the White House is trying to play with Berlin, with Paris, with Rome, just follow us, just follow us to provoking the war in Ukraine. Just forget about understanding Russia. Just forget about continuing dialog. Just follow us because we are the leaders. That’s another quite dangerous thing.

Radhika Desai:      Absolutely. And I think the fact that it’s not working, that Americans are not succeeding in persuading the Europeans this time is now all over the newspapers in Western countries, including in English-speaking countries which normally don’t like to admit such things. But what’s really interesting as well is that I read that Croatia has now announced that it’s not going to take part in any NATO operations if they were to come about.

So I’ll just ask the final question, and then you can work this into it if you want, because my final question is, it goes back to the United States. So there are clearly different parts of the West with different intentions and motivations. President Biden has promised extreme consequences if Russia does invade. Do you think that… Well, obviously the Americans, I don’t think that Americans or NATO are capable of responding militarily, particularly considering that in recent years, particularly since Russians announced the hypersonic missiles and so on, which many people even in the Pentagon considered was another Sputnik moment for the Americans, showing that Americans were technologically lagging behind, et cetera. So in this context, the Americans are basically thinking in terms of sanctions, and now they’re thinking of sanctioning Putin himself. But obviously in recent years, since 2014, sanctions have not actually deterred Russia from doing what Russia wants to do. So maybe you can just comment on these last things and we can draw our discussion to a close for now.

Why don’t you start, Oleg, and then we will…

Oleg Barabanov:        Yeah. Okay. Okay. I think, yes, that’s true, but I think if Biden and the US administration wanted to stop the war, wanted to stop Putin from starting the war, the sanctions, whatever serious, whatever hard they would be, just Putin himself personally on the sanctions list, I’m afraid that doesn’t matter for him at all. Because there will be, unfortunately, the Russian people who became the victim of the sanctions if there are currency discrepancies, switching off the SWIFT financial systems, blocking their currency exchanges between ruble and dollar. So it’ll make all the everyday life for the ordinary people here in Russia quite difficult. And I already see that many people started to buy dollars and to buy some… How to say, vegetables, fruits, grains, cereals, just [in case] –

Radhika Desai:          They started hoarding, yeah.

Oleg Barabanov:      Yes. To start hoarding. But for Putin himself, for all his entourage, they are multi-billionaires, maybe trillionaires, yeah? Much more than Elon Musk or Bill Gates they have, practically. So those sanctions, tail sanctions, sanctions from the tail, it means nothing. The only thing that could stop him really is to say, okay, if you invite Ukraine, if you pass the Ukrainian border, me, Joe Biden, I promise to push the nuclear button. That only thing will stop Putin. And Biden and the US administration, they understand that. And not doing that, because they said, we will not send our soldiers into Ukraine. We will not participate directly in the war in Ukraine, it means just tempting Putin to start the war. Because sanctions for him personally mean nothing, and he’s careless of the Russian people, unfortunately, it’s quite clear.

Radhika Desai:       Mm-hmm (affirmative). Boris?

Boris Kagarlitsky:       I’m still not completely pessimistic. I think that the war is possible, quite possible. Let’s be clear, it’s possible. But I think that… Well, it’s not about Putin. It’s about the Russian elite and not all these people are crazy. At least that’s how I see it. I still believe that people are reasonable creatures, most of them. And, well, in every case if anything goes wrong, if the war starts, the real victims will be common people on both the Russian and Ukrainian side, and that’s what we have to keep in mind. That’s the most important point. That’s it.

Radhika Desai:      Right. No. Okay. No, I think that makes a lot of sense, and I also just wanted to draw attention to the fact that one of the things that we are reading in the West is that, of course, the sanctions imposed since 2014 have actually not had much of an effect, partly because the Russians have responded, the Russian economy has responded to make up some of these things. For example, what has happened in agriculture that Russian agriculture is doing much better now. Russia’s even become a bit of an agricultural exporter so sanctions don’t work in that sense as well, from the American point of view.

Boris Kagarlitsky:       Well, I don’t think sanctions are working or not, because I don’t think they were designed to work. I think it’s a different story, and there was also a game of different interest groups trying to use sanctions for their own purposes on both sides, and so on and so on. So let’s be clear, it’s not about sanctions, it’s about people. Sanctions are not going to work, but people will suffer. And that’s what we have to keep in mind.

Radhika Desai:     Thank you so much, both of you for giving us such a deep insight into how things are looking, how this extremely dangerous situation is looking from the point of view of people in Russia, so thank you so much… The point of view of, actually, I should say, two progressive people in Russia, so thank you very much.

Boris Kagarlitsky:      Thank you.

Oleg Barabanov:        Thank you.

Radhika Desai:         Thank you.

Radhika Desai

Radhika Desai directs the Geopolitical Economy Research Group and teaches at the University of Manitoba and is known for proposing the Geopolitical Economy framework for understanding world affairs.