What to do with Russia: the country that will remain on the map after the war in Ukraine?

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During the Cold War, the Americans pursued a strategy of containment toward the Soviet Union to prevent any kind of Soviet expansion, whether militarily, economically or ideologically. Now, whatever the outcome of the Kremlin-induced war in Ukraine, the West will again need a long-term strategy toward Russia, Eglė Samoškaitė wrote in TV3.lt.

How will we deal with a Russia that has attacked Ukraine if the war drags on? How will we deal with it when it is over? How much will we communicate? Will we trade? Or will we keep the iron curtain down? Will we make efforts to weaken the regime and democratise the country? These are questions that the West should answer today in order to be ready for tomorrow.

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“This is actually one of the most important questions, and so far, I don’t see an answer from the Europeans that they know what they want Russia to be and how they want to talk to Russia. On the one hand, there are the Lithuanians, the Poles, who want to punish Russia as much as possible, to frustrate it to the point where it has no choice but to submit to democratisation proposals. On the other side, there are those like the Germans, the French, the Italians who imagine that no matter how formidable an opponent or competitor maybe, they need to be talked to, listened to, and, consequently, even with Russia, they will need to maintain relations when the war is over,” says Tomas Janeliūnas, professor of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.

Andrius Kubilius, a conservative Member of the European Parliament, says the West should prepare for Russia’s democratisation and work with the opposition that has fled the country, as a window of opportunity may open at an unexpectedly critical moment. As an argument that anything can happen in Russia, the politician cited the events in Belarus in 2020, when, after a fraudulent presidential election, many people took to the streets to demand change. However, no one had imagined that Belarus had so many people.

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In any case, two things have to be recognised: even after the war, however it ends, Russia will not disappear from the map and will not be defeated in the same way as Nazi Germany was defeated during the Second World War because Ukraine is only defending itself and will not attack Russia on its own territory. This means that it will not be possible to impose peace terms on Moscow.

Russia is also likely to remain an authoritarian state after the war and continue to threaten European security. However, neither Professor Janeliunas nor Margarita Šešelgytė, Director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University, believe in regime change.

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Iron Curtain-2

Russia’s war against Ukraine has been going on for more than a month. Russia hoped for a lightning war, but it did not succeed, and Moscow will now concentrate on the eastern part of Ukraine and the land corridor to Crimea. Ukraine would like to push Russian forces out of its country, but this will not happen soon. Although Russia is not succeeding in Ukraine as planned, Russian resources are not yet fully depleted.

This means that the war between Russia and Ukraine is most likely to continue for some time to come, with each side shifting to one side or the other, and even if a ceasefire is agreed upon, there is no guarantee that the Russians will abide by it.

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This means the West will be forced to continue sanctions and perhaps strengthen them by gradually phasing out its dependence on Russian energy resources. What should prevent the West from returning to the old way of communicating is the war crimes committed by an Eastern European state that knows Russia and by Russian soldiers, for example, as revealed in the KievKyivion of Bucha and Irpinia. It would be simply obscene to turn a blind eye.

As Professor T. Janeliunas of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science points out, along with Russia’s war in Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron’s concept of the need to bring Russia into Western structures to distance it from China, which is a strategic and fundamental adversary of the West in the long term, has collapsed.

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With Russia’s war in Ukraine and the West’s response in the form of sanctions and arms supplies to Ukraine, a second iron curtain has descended between the West and Russia, which naturally brings Moscow and Beijing closer together. Except China is the strong point in this pairing, and Russia is the weak point.

“The Iron Curtain is slowly coming down. Maybe this time, it won’t be iron. Maybe it will be called something else. In reality, the current closure of the West from Russia is almost equivalent to the Cold War, except that the borders are not now closed to its citizens, but here too, it is a question of whether Russia itself will close those borders. Everything else is basically the same. Diplomatic representation is declining, and economic ties are falling apart, settlements are falling apart. Russia is being kicked out of organisations. The Iron Curtain will come down, except that the situation is somewhat different, and the West no longer has the weight it had during the Cold War. Economically, there are far more markets for Russia than there were for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Same China, India, and some Asian countries are quite pro-Russian. If we look at how these countries reacted to the conflict, they reacted very cautiously, and this caution is due to their dependence on Russian arms supplies,” T. Janeliūnas noted.

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The political analyst believes that although the modern Iron Curtain will not be as blinding as it was during the Cold War, Russia is at risk of slipping into the level of third world countries in the economic, technological and military spheres as the country will be cut off from cutting edge solutions. In this way, a political alliance between Russia and China is very likely. China’s economic and technological penetration of Russia will grow. The West will no longer have to develop a strategy against Russia and China separately but against both countries together.

“I think the West will adapt to this, and the Chinese themselves will not be in a hurry to bail out Russia if it is not in their interest, or they will only bail it out to the extent that it is good for them. After a while, the West will very clearly forget Russia and turn to China. China will be the adversary and competitor for the next decades, and Russia will be the very annoying appendage that will continue to confuse but will have fewer instruments to do something radical. As a result, Russia’s importance in the international system as a whole will diminish”, T. Janeliunas believes.

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Europe will reduce its dependence on Russian resources

Eastern European countries such as Lithuania and Poland clearly see that Russia will remain a threat to Europe even after the war because it will simply remain authoritarian with the same predatory intentions. It will not be defeated in such a way as to force it to change from within, and a public uprising is hard to imagine, according to T. Janeliunas and M. Šešelgytė

“Of course, there can be surprises all the time. Nobody knows what is going on in the corridors of the Kremlin or other institutions and military structures. The likelihood of coups in authoritarian regimes is quite high. But I would not bet heavily on that, and I would certainly not bet on Russian society. I think that authoritarian regime will remain even after Vladimir Putin for quite a long time and may remain for decades, so I do not expect any optimistic transformations from Russia”, says T. Janeliunas.

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“It is unlikely that Russia will change fundamentally, that the public will rise up from below and overthrow the regime. Such a scenario is very unlikely. If one could imagine a potential change, it could be a shake-up within the regime, but then it doesn’t mean that Russia is defeated or has changed, which means that we will still be in contact with the regime,” Šešelgytė said.

If the regime remains the same, if there is no change in behaviour, then it seems natural that the West’s behaviour towards Russia should change. The French dream of integrating Russia into Western structures needs to be buried, the country’s economy needs to be squeezed with the heaviest possible sanctions, and the dependence of Western countries on Russian energy resources needs to be reduced.

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“As long as Russia has not fundamentally changed its view of the world, we must not go back to business as usual; the whole strategy must be built on a new reality in which Russia is a dangerous adversary that we need to watch out for and reduce our dependence as much as possible,” believes M. Šešelgytė, Director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science.

The US and the UK immediately imposed sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports because of their low dependence on Russia. It seems that, to some extent, similar processes are taking place in the European Union, but at a slower pace because of the greater dependence. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have already announced that they have refused Russian natural gas. But not oil. Other countries are also moving in the direction of reducing their dependence.

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In early March, the European Commission presented an initial plan for the European Union to become independent of Russian gas, oil and coal supplies by 2030, starting with natural gas. According to the initial idea, diversification of supplies could reduce dependence on Russian gas by two thirds by the end of this year.

European Union countries receive around 45% of their natural gas imports from Russia, around 25% of their oil imports and around 45% of their coal imports. Still, these quantities vary from country to country.

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“Coming back to the main question of how we will try to continue to live with Russia, I imagine there will be quite significant decisions to reduce dependence on Russia in terms of energy. This is very bad news for Russia in the long term because it is unlikely to be reversible. “Nord Stream 2, I think, is already a buried project, and the Poles will abandon Gazprom soon, from 2023, I think. Ukraine, of course, will continue to be dependent”, says T. Janeliunas.

But the paradox here is that Ukraine is a transit country for energy resources from Russia to Europe. The more successfully Europe moves away from Russian gas and oil, the more Ukraine will suffer because it will still be dependent and can be blackmailed by the Kremlin using energy resources. They cannot do that very freely now because they need to reach markets in Europe.

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“The Russians themselves will not be able to change the European market quickly. Although they have agreements with China for a major expansion of oil and gas supplies, those options are technically quite limited. New gas or oil pipelines will not be built very quickly over such distances,” says political analyst T. Janeliunas. 

How to eliminate the Russian threat once and for all?

However, Andrius Kubilius, MEP and former Lithuanian Prime Minister, notes that in the debate on what to do about Russia, almost nobody touches on the question of how to eliminate the Russian threat to Europe once and for all. Currently, the West seems to be coughing a little and moving towards distancing itself from Russia, which is also a good thing. But that is not enough, according to the politician.

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“What is missing from all the discussions is that Russia needs to be deterred. It needs to learn how to defend itself properly against Russia, but the European Union also needs to think about how to eliminate this threat altogether. And the way to remove it is not by wiping Russia off the map but by helping the Russian people to bring about a transformation within Russia itself. Because the threat of an authoritarian Russia will always remain if Russia does not change. Russia threatens the long-term solution for Europe to no longer is for democracy to take root in Russia. This, in my opinion, requires much more discussion, debate and consultation with the people of the Russian opposition. Many of them have fled Russia. We need to learn how to work with them. We need to be able to send clear messages to the Russian people. There is a lot of political and geopolitical work to be done here, which should not be forgotten, and Russia should not think that it is destined to be with the likes of Putin all the time,” said Mr Kubilius. 

It was incredible. He said that in August 2020, people in Belarus came out so united to defend democracy. After all, Belarus seemed to be a backwater that had never seen democratic processes. And although Alexander Lukashenko has survived with great violence, this proves that crowds of freedom-loving people can grow up even in completely authoritarian states.

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“For me, this is proof that we cannot talk about Russia’s transformation as if it were only a matter of the distant horizon. Things can turn very quickly. And one of the factors could be the consequences of this war”, the politician noted.

“If this war is indeed a complete failure for Putin (he has already retreated from Kyiv and elsewhere because he could not achieve anything there), the question of how it will end for him becomes more and more pressing. It is difficult to predict here. But even Joe Biden’s phrase in Warsaw that Putin cannot be the leader of Russia is very characteristic. Mr Biden clearly articulates the doctrine that one of the objectives can be changed within Russia itself. I am not speculating on what will happen, but we cannot rule out this possibility, and we must pay strategic attention to it,” said Mr Kubilius.

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In other words, Kubilius would like to see a clear strategy from the West towards Russia, rather than leaving everything to its own devices, as it has done with the Eastern Partnership region. The Eastern Partnership includes Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but recently this format has lost its original meaning.

“In my opinion, the European Union has made a big mistake by leaving the region to stagnate, to fend for itself, and this may have led Putin to think that he has the potential to pursue his interests in same Ukraine that the West will not stop him because the European Union is not going anywhere with its integration,” the politician said.

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In the current negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the idea is that Ukraine could give up its ambition to become a NATO member in exchange for security guarantees from the West, but that Russia would not oppose its membership of the EU. Similarly, Finland is a member of the European Union but has not joined NATO, although it cooperates very closely with the Alliance.

According to Mr Kubilius, if, in the long term, Ukraine could be integrated into the European Union, it would be an example to the Russian people of democracy and a well-functioning state. The only problem is that Russia will not be brought to its knees in this war, so the regime’s collapse is unlikely.

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However, the politician argues that much also depends on the West. For example, if the West chooses to supply Ukraine with even more weapons, defensive weapons, and offensive weapons, things will move faster on the battlefield in Russia’s favour. Another thing is that if the West were to ban Russian oil and gas imports without delay, the growth of Western economies would be slightly reduced, but this would have a much more severe impact on Russia.

“This could be the factor that forces Russia to admit that it has lost the war against Ukraine and the sanctions war against the West. What the consequences would be for the Putin regime can only be speculated. But, as I said, I would not be surprised if, despite the polls showing that Russians support the war and support Putin, it turns out that they do not. In the same way, polls have shown that Belarusians support Lukashenko,” said Mr Kubilius.

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T. Janeliunas, Professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University, was somewhat sceptical about the chances of democratising Russia in the long term, as the country’s opposition has been completely different destroyed.

“I would be sceptical. Even if people are negative about the war in Ukraine or Putin, they have not developed strong opposition leaders. And without them, even large masses of protesting people are very dispersed and can easily be dispersed by violence. In Russia, this possibility is several times greater than it was in Belarus. The Russians have seen it all, recorded it all, put it all in their heads and are now clamping down on even the most minimal protest attempts. This shows that the Kremlin will not really allow any large masses to form. And there will be no chance of democratisation on the part of society unless there are strong leaders. Or if no leaders are coming from within the regime itself, perhaps even with military capabilities. In that case, yes. If that mass is ready to be defended by someone, it can be turned against the regime. But suppose there are no leaders who are unwilling to use force or defend themselves by force. In that case, the aggressive, repressive regime has all the means to disperse that formless mass and dissolve it in propaganda,” the professor believes.

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M. Šešelgytė, Director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, pointed out that the West has already made efforts, traded with Russia, and sought to include it in all structures, but the strategy has failed. Democratising such a country would take a lot of hard work and a long time with the public, and it will be even harder now that the Iron Curtain is coming down. Moreover, sanctions do not usually change the regime and do not transform society but only increase the cost of armed conflict.

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