Roundtable: Longer-term implications of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine for Eastern Europe and Central Asia

The Centre for Eurasian and Russian Studies held a roundtable discussion with experts from the region to discuss the longer-term implications of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine for the countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Speakers include Yuliia Kurnyshova (Researcher at the Institute of International Relations, Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University, and Guest Researcher at the University of Tübingen), Luca Anceschi (Professor of Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow), and Andrey Makarychev (Professor of Regional Political Studies at the University of Tartu). The discussion was moderated by Heiko Pääbo (Lecturer in Politics of Baltic Region Countries at the University of Tartu).

Heiko Pääbo (H.P.): We have had full-scale war in Ukraine since 24 February, even though the war itself is ongoing since 2014. I would like to start with Yuliia and the situation in Ukraine. What are the remarkable developments from your point of view, and what are the major developments that you consider as surprising or unexpected (even though the war itself is unexpected)?

Yuliia Kurnyshova (Y.K.): I will probably start by saying that the fighting is currently ongoing without major breakthroughs for Russians and it now looks like a prolonged conflict. From my perspective, it is definitely a turning point for European security and even for world security. It goes without saying that Russian troops are committing unspeakable atrocities against civilians, against children, and all of you might see that Mariupol, a Russian speaking city in the east, was actually reduced to rubble. All of this, of course, is very shocking for many people due to the brutality, the unfairness, and because it’s happening in the 21st century. 

Let me highlight several points, which I think are important in light of domestic developments. So, first of all, and probably on the highest level, what we can see is changes in the national identity of Ukrainians. In the broadest terms, the Ukrainian nation now comes through a very painful, but very strong process of national consolidation. Putin’s intention to divide our country actually caused the opposite effect. The shelling of such Russian speaking cities as Kharkiv and Mariupol drastically diminishes the number of Russia-sympathizers. This is probably the most positive effect if we can speak of the positive effects of the war at all. 

But I also want to mention that several days ago, as a response to the war, 11 political parties with links to Russia were suspended. Among those are the Opposition Platform for Life, led by Viktor Medvedchuk, who is well known as an oligarch and very close crony to the Russian president. Even though this still has to be legitimized, the process is inevitable. I think that any politician, who is going to build a political career in Ukraine, cannot be associated with Russia. This changes the political landscape in Ukraine dramatically. 

Another important point is the rise of support for president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, because he has shown himself as a resolute leader. It was not the same before the war, when he was under criticism for the unfulfillment of his electoral promises. But now many people admire him for his position and his leadership. At the same time, Ukraine remains a very pluralistic state. Any attempt to establish authoritarian rule will meet with strong opposition, and Ukrainians have already demonstrated this during the last 20 years of their history. I don’t have any fears or doubts that this support for Zelenskyy would cause any abuse of power from his side. I should also mention that, of course, it’s very painful to observe that many reforms and reform achievements of the last eight years, unfortunately, couldn’t be continued. Under such circumstances, reforms are not possible. 

But there are also some positive dynamics. Currently, our banking system operates quite smoothly, Ukraine joined the European power grid system and thus became independent from the Russian system, and the biggest international financial institutions like IMF, World Bank, EBRD committed huge packages of support for the restoration. So on the economic front, it’s very complicated but bearable so far, but it will depend much on how prolonged and protracted this conflict will be.

H.P.: Let’s also map out the developments in other countries bordering Russia where there is a kind of fear of or concerns about Russian aggression. On the one hand, Russia is seen as a security threat, but on the other hand, also as a partner. Central Asia is one example of a region where all countries, to a different degree, have been cooperating with Russia. There are constant concerns about Russian interests in this region. What are the reactions today in Central Asian countries? 

Luca Anceschi (L.A.): I would say that you really need to contextualize how the war is happening within the dynamics that you find in the different landscape. I’m going to speak mostly about the two biggest countries: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan invited Russian troops in to help the President survive a kind of a failed coup only ten weeks ago. Uzbekistan is a country where you have an ongoing debate about whether or not to join the Eurasian Union. So, you have a significant amount of political debate, mostly from the elite side, that is preoccupied, one way or the other, with how to relate to Russia. These are discussions which have been going on for a long time, and, depending on where you look at them from, they have different power and different influences.

I think that what we have seen in the last month has completely changed the way in which relations with Russia have been thought of so far. The invasion in Ukraine really put some sort of return to the Cold War on the map. Not in terms of ideological infrastructure but the way in which you now have two worlds divided – you are either with Russia or against Russia. The Central Asian countries have been doing this kind of sitting on the fence for 30 years but that option is no longer available. We see in the current context that the President of Kazakhstan is trying to hide behind any kind of rhetorical argument the fact that his job has been saved by the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization] intervention, and is very much trying to downplay the connection with Russia. With Uzbekistan, the President has been somewhat more vocal, but he maintained exactly the same position as Kazakhstan – trying to go as far away from Putin as he possibly can. They’re doing this because of political or economic convenience. Maybe they try to fit into some vacuum. This is no longer clear. But I think that in all of this, we need to understand that Central Asia is peripheral to both the Ukraine context, as well as to the point of rupture, which is the Russia-West division. 

As to surprises, I am not really surprised. One thing which for sure will now happen is that you’re not going to see the Central Asian countries running in a rush to join the Eurasian Union. Whatever developments that institution may have, it is more and more of a geopolitical institution rather than some kind of a common market developing. So I would say that the Central Asian states who are part of it will fight to make it weaker, and those who are not, will not strive to get in.

HP: What has happened after the 24 February in Moldova, South Caucasus, Belarus, but also in the aggressor country, Russia?

Andrey Makarychev (AM): When it comes to Russia, there are many question marks, all boiling down to the primordial question of “What does Russia want?” This question is reiterated from one publication to another. What is known is that Russia has publicly declared two strategic goals: denazification and demilitarization [of Ukraine], and here we enter the terrain of language games that Russia intentionally plays. How can you denazify something which is not nazified by definition? How can you demilitarize something which is defensive rather than offensive? In my view, these two concepts are intentionally kept as very vague, uncertain, and open to multiple interpretations. This allows Russia to proclaim victory at its own liking or its own discretion when needed. Basically, denazification might be interpreted as changes in the Ukrainian government, and demilitarization might be interpreted as a substantial blow to the Ukrainian Army. But this is a very obscure strategy.  

When it comes to more tactical elements, Russia started with the idea of Blitzkrieg – a fast military defeat of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, followed by political surrender, which is good evidence of a very scarce understanding of what Ukraine is in the Kremlin. That’s why this tactic was changed to military capture of major cities. Yet again, Russia so far did not achieve much except for transforming into a killing machine, especially in Mariupol and Kharkiv. Russia is afraid of a full-fledged urban warfare, in which each building might turn into a small military fortress. I also do not see much success in this strategy. Now we have a kind of a third option, a blockade of major urban centers and gradual destruction of urban infrastructure, including mass scale murder of people.

The Ukrainian film “Atlantis” by Valentyn Vasyanovych portrayed a dystopian post-war Ukraine that seems to be quite close to what Russia wants to leave behind – a deserted and depopulated area, with mined areas and contaminated environment in which people cannot live normal human lives, basically struggling for physical survival. I would call this necropolitical suffocation. “Necropolitical” because it’s about killing people, taking their lives, and suffocation in the sense that the Kremlin sends a message to Zelenskyy: the more you delay concessions to Russia, the more Ukrainian citizens will be killed. This is an impossible dilemma for any leader.

When it comes to surprises, one of them is related to the ongoing story of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Russia’s behavior raises some questions whether it is serious in expecting something tangible from these talks. On the one hand, Russia does not rule out the very idea of a negotiated settlement. Yet the bizarre figure of Vladimir Medinsky, the head of Russia’s delegation and a former Minister of Culture, lacking any experience in international affairs, makes me doubt that the Kremlin expects some results from him. Of course, it’s also no coincidence that on the day the 15-points plan leaked to the media, Russia dropped a huge bomb over the theatre in Mariupol, in which 1500 people were hiding. By doing so, Russia itself destroyed any possibility for negotiating results.

As for neighboring countries, including Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova, it makes sense to look at what some Russian think tankers, especially those who are close to the Kremlin, have published recently. One of them was Timofey Bordachev who made it quite clear that most of Russia’s neighbors will need to adjust their policies to the new reality. This means that most of them will need to recalibrate their aspirations for independence and autonomy. That’s exactly what already happens in Belarus, a country very much weakened by the rigged presidential election of August 2020. The feeble regime of Lukashenka is susceptible to Russian pressure aimed at expanding its participation in the military activities against Ukraine.

When it comes to Georgia and Moldova, both showed a pragmatic type of bandwagoning having joined Ukraine’s application to European Union membership. In the meantime, neither Georgia nor Moldova joined sanctions against Russia. I do see some kind of mental bifurcation: the governments in Tbilisi and Chisinau want to be part of the European Union but do not want to join common foreign and security policy. The Moldovan and Georgian political elites need to decide what it means to be European in a situation of war.

H.P.: Let us briefly reflect on the developments within the European Union, especially the Eastern and Central European members. When we speak about the Baltic states, then no big changes have taken place. The threat perception about Russia and concerns were always there but for me, probably, the biggest surprise is the openness and willingness of the Baltic nations to support Ukraine. Estonia has been one of the first countries to provide military assistance for Ukraine, and this discourse was already there, but the willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees was surprising, particularly in comparison to the discourses we had in the previous refugee crisis. The rapid mobilization of society and willingness to support is not only visible on the governmental level, but also on the grassroots level, and that’s definitely quite a big change in our societies.

When I compare the three Baltic states, then it’s also surprising for me that the Estonian Prime Minister [Kaja Kallas], has managed to become the leader among the Baltic states on a European level or in the broader Western context. Earlier Lithuania was the most vocal one and represented the messages that Estonia and Latvia also supported but didn’t always express because they did not want to be perceived as a single-issue country. Now we can see that Estonian leadership is raising this issue internationally. Current prime minister, Kaja Kallas, is really taking this topic very close to her heart. In the entire society, there is a strong sense of support for Ukrainian efforts to defend itself. There is certain moderation or less support among the Russian speaking community to assist Ukraine. That’s probably most expected, because not all Russian speaking communities are very well integrated in the Baltic states.

Y.K.: From the Ukrainian perspective, we see two prevailing approaches within the EU: Germany and France on the one hand, who still hope to resolve this crisis somehow diplomatically and maybe by concessions from the Ukrainian side, and, on the other hand, Eastern European members of the EU, which are more resolute. It’s obvious for us as Ukrainians that some states do not want to fight or quarrel with Russia because they are too dependent on it. Others believe that Russia’s war simply does not concern them, which is very worrisome. 

On February 28, Ukraine officially applied to join the European Union under the special simplified procedure, and got the message that joining is pretty much possible when the war will be over. Although this does not mean a candidate status yet, it is at least something. After Ukraine will complete some procedures, it will be determined whether it is meeting the Copenhagen criteria, and so on. I think that granting EU membership to Ukraine is quite feasible, and probably the wisest solution in terms of resolving the security dilemma for Ukraine, because the situation with NATO is quite opposite. Even inside Ukraine people hold transatlantic aspirations with some reservation. We see in the last days that NATO is not ready to provide sufficient military support as requested. This generated some doubts in Ukrainian society about the feasibility of integration with the alliance, and it has provoked fears about the government deviating from its initial transatlantic course. But I can say that it cannot happen because any deviation should be supported at parliamentary hearings and adopted in the parliament by 300 deputies, and this won’t be possible right now. But there are doubts about NATO’s ability to stand not only with Ukraine, but – given the speculation that this war can expand beyond the Ukrainian borders – also with Eastern European member states. Some speculate whether NATO  will be able to provide its military support under article five, or whether it will limit its support only to the supply of weaponry as it does now in limited capacity to Ukraine.

H.P.: Let us now discuss longer-term prognoses. It’s obvious that it’s always very difficult to predict the events, but it would still be interesting to hear what you as experts think. Where will Ukraine, Central Asian countries, Russia, Belarus and others be in five years’ time from now?

L.A.: I am not sure what will be in five years’ time. One thing which is clear for me now is that the form of authoritarianism that Putin is embodying is no longer applicable beyond Russia. The authoritarian politics is going to remain in Central Asia, regardless of the war, but it will need to find some other models to follow. This kind of imperialism, aggressive politics and juxtaposition with the West will not work in the region, which, beyond being dangerous, is a sign of how wrong Putin’s calculations were. So Russia’s power or influence is completely gone. To me, this is something which will reshape quite profoundly the way which Central Asia’s top states are going to look like. I’m not saying that they will turn to democracy, but they will attempt to find some new models to follow. This also means that the multilateral option for association offered by Russia – the Eurasian Union – has lost appeal. The whole idea of Eurasian integration, of building a community up from the markets, has completely lost relevance.

About the European Union – it is not just about sanctions, instead, you have a complex set of values and procedures which you need to adhere to and probably it’s going to take a bit more than five years for the Ukrainians to join. It’s going to be a long process, because it’s one thing what the Western governments do in times of war, but another thing what they will do during elections, so there is goodwill now, but, as we all know, it may shift pretty quickly. 

H.P.: If we think in terms of a regional perspective, do you predict then that China will move even more into Central Asia and Russia will be pushed out?

L.A.: Not necessarily. First, the European Union in 2013 was really clear that there is no future of association for Kazakhstan in particular, so there is no long-term goal there. But Central Asians have been really good at playing different powers at the same time, so we will see some kind of Russian influence because of the Russian media, but not events similar to January 5 when the Russian troops entered Almaty and addressed the problem. CSTO had never done it before, so this would normally have meant that Kazakhstan getting closer to Putin was inevitable. But the cases of Armenia or Belarus show what kind of risks you have by being too close to Russia.

Second, there’s a factor as simple as the demography of Central Asia – these are now Asian states, and the sizable Russian communities are being pushed out, so these countries are Eurasian states only in part. This doesn’t mean that China is going to fill the gap because there might not be a gap.

Third, there is no other way for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to export their oil and gas westwards. In Kazakhstan, at the moment, they can only export through Russia, which is a problem, and Turkmenistan does not have the infrastructure to cross the Caspian sea and get into Turkey. As a policymaker in Nursultan or in Ashgabat, you are really forced to either look towards China or other parts of Asia, Iran or the Gulf states. Note that at the same time when Putin invaded Ukraine, Turkmenistan managed to bring the son of the previous President to power, which means 30 more years of authoritarian oppression. We will probably see the development of more independent authoritarian regimes which do not really wish for the kind of patronage, a clientelist relationship similar to Belarus. But one thing is for sure, because you see it already now: being anti-Putin has become a sign of opposition in Central Asia. People do oppose Russia, because they want to tell the governments that we don’t want to be like Belarus, we are independent of Putin.

Some political activists have opposed Eurasian integration for 20 years, they always equate the Eurasian Union to the Soviet Union. I always thought that this is not the case but now I’d say they were  right, because if you read how the war is going and compare it with what Putin wanted to achieve, then the main conclusion for me is that the model of Russian authoritarianism is no longer appealing to anyone. Although Russian values resonate with Central Asia, even if you go to a place relatively more open like Kyrgyzstan, you do hear the people talking about conservative values, family values, we are not really West, but we are like Russia, as you all should be. But you no longer have anything beyond that. You can have a strong economic model, Kazakhstan is the Asian counterpart of Ukraine. These two are former peripheries of the Soviet Union and they interact with and establish themselves in relation to Russia.

H.P.: In other words, Central Asia tries to find its own way and Belarus is a negative example where no one would like to go. So what will happen in 5-10 years’ time in Belarus or the Belarus-Russia union state? Some people are very optimistically hoping that Putin’s regime will fall, then Russia will turn towards democracy and that also leads to Lukashenka being replaced by democratic forces in Belarus.

A.M.: In my view, what happens in Belarus is of secondary importance because what is really important is what happens in Russia. There is a delusive misperception in certain academic and policy circles in the West that we just need to buy time and wait when Putin steps down in one way or another, physically or politically. And then – since many people in the West believe that we don’t have a conflict with Russian people – when Putin is gone, we will miraculously see the “good” Russian people, democratic, Western and European. I don’t believe in this perspective, and think that Russia’s dilemma is neofeudalism versus neofascism.

Neofeudalism basically means isolation and distancing from the West, which is already happening. For instance, the Russian Ministry of Education has canceled all references to publications in Scopus and Web of Science for assessing Russian scholars, so there is no need to publish in the West. There will be no Western trade brands or trademarks in Russia, no state-of-the-art technology, which will foster intellectual degradation and very conservative lifestyles. This is one model. Another is neofascism which means that there will be a much more aggressive, repressive, and revisionist Russia, and Ukraine is not the only target of Russian interventionism.  Andriy Yermak, Head of Administration of President Zelenskyy, just recently made this point when trying to persuade the West that this is not only the war of Ukraine, it’s something that will, in one way or another, affect many other countries. Within this hypothetical neofascist future of Russia, I can see a new wave of revival of old Imperial dreams that might paradoxically coexist with greater space for such deeply medieval figures as Ramzan Kadyrov. 

The battlefields in Ukraine might affect the choice for one or the other model. Should Russia proclaim its victory in Ukraine (whatever is meant by victory), this might boost the chances for the next neofascist scenario with such slogans as “Yes, we are right, because we have the might”. In the case of a defeat in Ukraine, the first scenario – immersion into neofeudalism, a growing sense of frustration, existential anxiety – might prevail. There are still some minor chances for a new Gorbachev, but for that Russia needs a simultaneous, synchronized conflation of three factors: a military failure, a profound economic and financial crisis, and a very strong domestic mobilization for change.

H.P.: Our biggest concerns are about what’s going on in Ukraine and hoping that it will manage to win the war. Yuliia, what do you think will be the five to 10 years perspective for the developments in Ukraine and Ukraine’s integration with international regional cooperation frameworks?

Y.K.: I think that the answer to your question, Heiko, will depend on the outcome of the war, because this war is really a game changer [both for Ukraine as well as] for the world order, both in terms of shifting the balance of power and shaping of all international institutions. I personally do not believe that Putin would buy any form of Ukrainian rejection of NATO membership and that, in exchange for it, he would end the war. Putin’s intention is a complete resolution of the Ukrainian question, as we used to say before, and currently I do not see much room for a diplomatic solution, unfortunately. There is no compromise which would be acceptable for both Russia and Ukraine. I would say that two scenarios are possible. The first scenario is a long-protracted war, which will have, of course, a very devastating effect for both sides, and which will turn the whole region into a kind of gray zone with economic refugees. The second scenario is a Ukrainian victory with the support of allies in the battlefield, and this one will lead to the removal of Putin from the Kremlin. Of course, there is a certain possibility that the war will go beyond Ukraine and escalate into a war with NATO. I can’t exclude it but currently, I don’t see how it would emerge. So, to answer the question of what will be in terms of 5-10-year perspective means answering what will be the outcome of this war and how it will be decided. It depends much on the position of Western countries but the major burden is currently on Ukrainians because they’re waging this war, people are suffering because they’re at risk each day. Of course, I cannot answer this question about Ukraine. I would love to see a restored, peaceful, economically and in security terms strong country, but currently, there are some very operational tasks which need to be resolved in order to come close to this future.

H.P.: Of course, it’s understandable that these are primary concerns and these events will very much define which further developments would be possible, but just to summarize this discussion, then a question about the European or Eurasian security framework. Do you think that we are able to restore what we used to have in the next ten years, or will we have a completely new security structure in our region?

Y.K.: I assume that the existing security architecture has proved to be very insufficient and it should be reshaped. We are probably moving towards splitting the security alliances into smaller entities where security guarantees are provided regionally, for instance. I think that the biggest issue for now is security guarantees and who will be the guarantor for Ukraine – whether it’s the US or Russia is a big question.

L.A.: I totally agree. NATO has been described as an obsolete instrument for a while now, or even if proven good, just as a deterrent, not as anything else. Security conglomerates, in which you have military alliances or smaller regions, may work. How is this going to operate in a world where the great powers are back, I don’t know. You also have to understand that all the great powers are in a state of flux. The US will have elections in a couple of years. All you need is a couple of states in between and we have a totally different president in power. China does not have the [sufficient] military component. The case of Ukraine demonstrates how difficult it would be to invade Taiwan [if China would want to do that] and deep clashes in Russia have been revealed by the Ukrainian complex. So, it is a time of change but change doesn’t come quickly enough. The situation will be protracted, but maybe by the end of the decade there will be the context for a new discussion about the security framework.

A.M.: First of all, we need to have a better idea what kind of security we are talking about. Do we have in mind the same understanding of security that was dominant after the fall of the Soviet Union, with the dominance of soft security dimensions? Or are we coming back to hard security as a general frame? I’m afraid the second option looks more likely. I completely agree with Yuliia and with Andriy Yermak who said on behalf of the Ukrainian government that they are not happy with the extant security order because it does not give Ukraine any international guarantees. Therefore, even Ukraine does not stick so much to the current security architecture that needs to be somehow reshaped and reshuffled. But I’m a little bit more skeptical about small, regional islands of security. Look at organizations, such as the Council of the Baltic Sea States, or the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. Did they play a role in the newly emerged security challenges? I do see some perspectives of a stronger Polish leadership within the Visegrád Group, while I’m less optimistic about the idea of Intermarium, because I think it looks more like a political project not based on a strong institutional ground. I also see some prospects of the Three Seas Initiative, because it’s very much supported by the United States. It does not have a security dimension right now, in an explicit way, but implicitly, it can be securitized and used as a security platform. All in all, in the forthcoming 5-10 years, we’ll witness many changes in this part of the world.

Based on this discussion, an article was published in Estonian in the University of Tartu magazine Universitas Tartuensis, which can be accessed here.