Putin’s regime could endure decades of sanctions and isolation: Until then, Russia depends on the sale of its natural resources. As long as the West continues to buy these resources, Russia will be able to continue to finance its invasion of Ukraine and strengthen Putin’s regime.
The warning comes from Agnia Grigas, an expert within the Atlantic Council, specializing in the field of energy and political risks in Europe, Russia and the former soviet space. She is the author of The Politics of Energy and Memory Between the Baltic States and Russia (2013) and The New Geopolitics of Gas (2017).
She has worked for a decade as a business development, analysis and risk mitigation advisor. She served as adviser on energy and economic issues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania. She holds a BA from Columbia University and a PhD in International Relations from Oxford University.
Agnia Grigas is also the author of one of the reference works on the Putin regime and the re-imperialization of Russia: "Crimea and the new Russian Empire", published by Yale University Press in 2016 (translated into Romanian by Corinth Publishing).
Agnia Grigas, I recently read your book, The Compatriots, in which you also say that Russorealism has been mislabeled as Russophobia. How much of what Vladimir Putin has been doing since February could have been prevented, and how?
I do believe that the Russian invasion of 2022 could have been prevented. So could have been Russia’s territorial grabs of 2014. The lack of understanding that Vladimir Putin and the Russian foreign policy establishment seek to capture territory and expand its influence beyond the borders of the Russian Federation has been one of the costliest mistakes.
If the West had understood it, they could have taken preventive action and deterred Russian aggression: such as comprehensive sanctions against Russia and particularly Russian fossil fuel exports and arming Ukraine before the Russian invasion. The lack of Russorealism among the Western foreign policy establishment results in reactive policies rather than preemptive. As a result Ukraine and the West must try to reverse Russia’s fait accompli which is more complicated.
Since 2014 with Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk and since the 1990s in Moldova and the 2000s in Georgia, Moscow has gotten away with territorial grabs with little consequences from the international community. Europe has continued to buy Russian fossil fuels, multi-national corporations have continued to do business and invest in Russia, further enriching and emboldening Putin’s government.
You talk in the book about the stages of Russia’s re-imperialization, there are seven of them. In this context, what is Vladimir Putin's goal? Does he only want Ukraine?
Putin and the Russian foreign policy establishment seek to regain territory and/or influence in the former territories of the Soviet Union and the former territories of the Russian Empire. The different means and levels of territorial capture has been demonstrated in Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk, Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.
However, the Kremlin also state-capture through political means by sponsoring politicians and establishing corrupt networks in business. Likewise, Putin’s ambitions also entail re-establishing Russia as a great power and essentially an empire modeled along the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire with its own sphere of influence and a free pass from the international community to do as it wishes in neighboring countries.
More broadly, in the geopolitical competition between democratic states and authoritarian regimes, Putin seeks to weaken, destabilize, and destroy democratic countries in his near abroad and beyond.
What are the narratives that Putin is using in his war in Ukraine and where do you think they succeed? In other words, is Russia still able to convince anyone or has the West finally woken up to reality?
While February 2022 was a final wake up call for many, Russian narratives and propaganda are to a degree still too accepted both by the Western foreign policy establishment and by the international media. One of the more successful narratives is that each Russian military campaign abroad is somehow different and unique rather than part of an overall expansionist agenda.
For instance, Crimea is presented as having historical ties to Russia and incorporated through a referendum or that the people of the Donbas are Russian speakers and separatists seeking independent statelets. In the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia where there were few Russian speakers and few ethnic Russians it is presented as a story of Ossetin and Abkhazian nationalism versus Georgian nationalism. In reality, all of these different regions were and are targets of Russian territorial expansionism but only the military operation tactics and optics differed.
It is also concerning to see that the Western media often gives credibility to pure Russian propaganda, which are often no more than outrageous and cynical lies. However, in media will offer it as by an alternative opinion or Moscow’s take on events. For example: “While Kyiv reports Russian war atrocities in Bucha, Moscow denies it and says the Ukrainians faked civilian deaths”.
Another persistent false narrative is that Europe could not do without Russian fossil fuels. This limits Western sanctions and continues to fund Russia’s war. Meanwhile, the global liquefied natural gas market as well as the LNG exports from the United States and other parts of the world have created a number of alternatives for European consumers.
Do sootecestvenik, the compatriots, still have a role to play in this war?
Yes, Russia continues to consistently use the compatriot strategy in the war in Ukraine. Part of Putin’s declared war aims is to protect Ukrainian Russian speakers – whom Moscow has declared as compatriots – from other Ukrainians and the government in Kyiv.
Moreover, in newly occupied territories in the Donbas, Russia now hands out Russian passports and offers payments to those who accept Russian passports. These newly bought and created Russian citizens then come under the protection and jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. This same model was followed in Crimea, South Ossetia, Abkhazia.
Russia also tries to cleanse Ukrainian southern and eastern territories of its original inhabitants and then brings in Russian military and their families. These new Russian colonizers then can call for Russian protection, vote in referendums, and seek incorporation into the Russian Federation as in the case of Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk and also Transnistria. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are either forced to flee the territories or are taken through filtration camps and settled in distant parts of Russia.
What are the scenarios for Ukraine – best and worst scenarios – right now?
Unfortunately, in this brutal war with the civilian deaths and destruction of Ukrainian cities, industries, and agriculture, there are few best scenarios. Nonetheless, one hopeful scenario is that Ukraine manages to resist Russian occupation and regains much of its occupied territories. As a result, it protects the rest of central and eastern Europe from Russian aggression by exhausting Russian resources and willpower for further expansion.
Overtime, with European Union integration Ukraine’s large territory, industries and agriculture, and educated population would yield a booming economy and vibrant democracy. It would offer an alternative development model to other Russian neighboring countries like Belarus. In this scenario, a regime change in Russia could even be in the cards, though we cannot assume that simply anyone else replacing Putin would necessarily bring a positive change.
The worst-case scenario is that of prolonged war and destruction which result in Ukraine’s stagnating economy, continued emigration, political infighting and fragmentation. Investment both foreign and domestic would stall. Brain drain would escalate. New politicians may emerge seeking a compromise with Russia, promising the fatigued population peace.
The West may seek a strike a deal with Moscow. Ukraine’s EU integration would be tabled indefinitely and a frozen conflict would be cemented for decades to come. Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes like those of Russia and China would be further emboldened to chip away at the territories of democracies or grey zone states.
The West decided to impose sanctions on Russia, to support Ukraine, - not by becoming part of a full-scale war, but by supplying weapons - also to accept and to deal with the consequences of the economic crisis, especially with the problems associated with energy and food supplies. Can Russia be defeated with this strategy?
The current Western strategy of targeted but limited sanctions will not yield a rapid defeat of Russia. We have seen other isolated international pariahs such as North Korea, Iran, and others sustain their regimes for decades. Being larger, endowed with various resources, and with a larger domestic market Russia and Putin’s regime could also last decades of sanctions and isolation.
This will certainly come at a cost to the Russian economy that is already evident. To what extent the Russian population will bear it and the level of repressions that the Kremlin will enact to keep the population compliant remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Russia depends on the sale of natural resources. While the West continues to buy these resources, Russia will be able to continue funding its invasion of Ukraine and propping up Putin’s regime.
The West’s supply of Ukraine with weapons has also been done in a reactive rather than pre-emptive fashion. This has cost Ukrainian lives, emboldened Russian offensives and allowed Russian land grab which are costly to reverse. By allowing Russia to dominate the Black Sea and prevent Ukrainian agricultural exports, the West has also enabled the food crises.
We know that the nuclear arsenal is part of Putin's ideology and vision. Is it now a real threat to the world? Could Putin resort to his nuclear arsenal?
It is extremely concerning because this is a case of a nuclear state being administered with no checks and balances and with little oversight from the public. The decision-making apparatus of Putin’s regime is smaller and receives less input and oversight than the governments of the Soviet era. Putin has less accountability than did Khrushchev, Brezhnev, or Gorbachev.
However, the narrative that the West should be careful not to provoke a nuclear conflict with Russia is somewhat misguided. Putin is already using nuclear blackmail by threatening the use of the nuclear arsenal when not a single soldier or a single bullet has even touched Russian soil. The Russian occupation and shelling of the Ukrainian nuclear power plan Zaporizhzhia – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe – is also an act Russian nuclear aggression. The UN Secretary General and the International Atomic Energy Agency already warn of the risk of a nuclear accident greater than that of Chernobyl of 1986.
The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) presupposes that a rational actor would not engage in nuclear war against another nuclear power. If we assume the Kremlin to be a rational actor, it still leaves the risk that Russia could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or employ the nuclear blackmail in Zaporizhzhia.
You can read the Romanian translation of the interview here - Agresiunea nucleară rusă se întâmplă deja. Am văzut alți paria internaționali izolați, Coreea de Nord, Iran, unde regimurile au continuat netulburate decenii Interviu