Peter Duncan is a professor at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London. He spoke to Chris Ford of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign. Many thanks to the campaign for allowing us to publish this interview, which we have abridged and tidied up slightly.
We have seen a build up of Russian Federation armed forces on Ukraine’s borders and in Crimea. There has been an escalation in East Ukraine since January. What is behind this?
There are 100,000 troops now surrounding Ukraine. The aim is to intimidate Ukraine, to try to persuade it, and the EU and NATO, to drop or adopt certain actions. I think these are the most important:
To abandon hope of getting back Crimea.
To prevent any attempt to move the Donbas “line of contact”.
To drop Ukraine’s aims of closer association with NATO and the EU; and to discourage other states in Russia’s “sphere of interests” from seeking such association, and to discourage NATO and the EU from further enlargement in the region.
To force Ukraine to implement its side of the Minsk agreements, in particular “federalisation”, involving more autonomy for oblasts.
To stop the pressure from [Ukrainian president] Volodymyr Zelensky on pro-Russian parts of the Ukrainian elite, most recently on Viktor Medvedchuk and the TV stations associated with people close to him.
To get Ukraine to restore water supplies to Crimea.
More generally, Vladimir Putin wants to punish Ukraine for the Maidan revolution of 2014, both for regime change and for international political realignment. In particular, Zelensky must be taught a lesson for suggesting that as the people of Ukraine had changed their leadership, so could the people of Russia.
Russia also wants to address Joe Biden from a position of apparent strength.
I would not rule out the possibility of a further invasion of Ukraine, beyond the existing territories of Crimea and parts of Donbas. Russia says that the exercises will be over in two weeks, but even if troops are withdrawn on this occasion the point will have been made about Russia’s capacity to mobilise rapidly.
Is Putin deliberately raising tensions, or is this a pretext for the western powers to escalate a more aggressive approach towards Russia?
Putin is clearly the instigator.
There is a widespread opinion in the Western left that the conflict is a response to Western expansionism, that there was a “fascist coup” in Ukraine, and the current tensions are due to Ukraine’s intransigence as regards peace.
Many people, not only on the left, including a House of Lords sub-committee, believe that the EU acted recklessly before and during 2013 in ignoring Russian interests in Ukraine with the policy of the Eastern Partnership. Undoubtedly there were fascists in the Maidan in 2013-14. The Poroshenko regime which led Ukraine from 2014 to 2019 rehabilitated and made a hero of the Ukrainian nationalist leader Bandera, who for a while cooperated with the Nazis during the Second World War. Nevertheless, the current tensions are mainly attributable to Russia’s policy, starting with the annexation of Crimea and then followed by forcible interventions in Southern and Eastern Ukraine, which began in 2014 and continue in Donbas today.
What has been the impact of the conflict with Ukraine on the Russian ruling class, and has there been a change within the elites towards Putin and policies of the Kremlin?
I suspect that the opposition to Putin’s Ukraine strategy from figures outside the regime but close to it, such as Alexei Kudrin, reflects wider concern at the impact of sanctions. So far, the regime has closed ranks on this.
I think the military has been becoming more influential in Russian foreign policy, from 2014, but Putin still controls it.
Is it right that Russia has sought to protect its business interests and influence in Ukraine, viewing it from the strategic perspective as part of the “greater Russian world”?
Yes. I think that the leadership now considers the projected sphere of influence to include the whole territory of the former Soviet Union, except for the Baltic States.
There was a resurgence of protests in Russia in opposition to Putin. Is this internal situation in Russia a significant factor in shaping the approach towards Ukraine?
No, the regime has dealt with the protests which have escalated since 2018 inside Russia by stepping up internal repression and by trying to kill Alexei Navalny. I think that some of the moves against Ukraine in 2014 reflected fears of protest inside Russia, but people tend to forget that the protest wave against the fraudulent State Duma elections of 2011 had been largely dealt with by 2013. Policy towards Ukraine has its own momentum, primarily related to events in Ukraine itself; and also to send signals to the peoples of other states such as Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan about the benefits of cooperating with Russia.
What is the attitude of the official opposition in Russia to the conflict with Ukraine?
The parties of the “systemic opposition”, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, “A Just Russia”, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia are all fully supportive of the Kremlin, and sometimes call for a tougher line. Zhirinovsky has not recognised Ukraine’s independence. The non-systemic opposition opposes the regime’s policy. Grigory Iavlinsky’s liberal party, Yabloko, which is legally registered, rejects the annexation. The unregistered liberal groups are also opposed; Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Party of People’s Freedom, was about to expose the undeclared presence of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine when he was murdered in 2015.
After seven years of conflict, what do you consider is the possible outcome?
The most likely is the continuation of the status quo, until either there is a change of regime in Russia or the Kremlin succeeds in pressuring Ukraine into accepting some of its aims. If Trump returned to office in 2024, this would facilitate the latter.
What should Western socialists say?
Socialists should oppose the authoritarian kleptocratic regime in Moscow and the oligarchic system in Kiev. But the Kremlin, with its blatant interference in the politics of liberal democracies and support of far-right groups, represents a danger to the Western left in a way that no Ukrainian regime ever could. Ukraine is clearly the victim of Russian aggression. Further, Putin’s increasingly vicious attack on those calling for human and democratic rights inside Russia needs to be opposed. Russians today do not want a war, whether it’s in Ukraine, Syria or Libya. They want a stop to their falling living standards and are more aware of the connection between corruption and their own socioeconomic position than they were before. Repression at home is aimed at silencing not only opponents of domestic policies, but also critics of the regime’s foreign policies.
Socialists should call for sanctions against the Kremlin, particularly against those responsible for the actions against Ukraine and for repressive internal policies. It is not easy for socialists to support the foreign policy actions of their own governments when they appear to be promoting international tension. But the threat to world peace now comes from China and Russia rather than from the liberal democracies, and some of these sanctions are aimed at removing the oppressors and warmakers. We should differentiate themselves from Conservative policies by highlighting how successive governments have encouraged Russian money, looted from the state, to find a safe home through City of London channels. In particular, we should expose the connections between figures linked with the Kremlin and some of the structures and leaders of the Conservative Party.