Geoff Roberts – The Ukrainian counteroffensive has already failed. The West could limit the damage by opening negotiations with Moscow

The window for a negotiated end to the war is closing rapidly. This autumn could be diplomacy’s last chance to secure any kind of a settlement. If that doesn’t happen, Ukraine’s fate will be decided on the battlefield and when the guns go silent, the Ukrainian state may not exist in any meaningful sense.

Geoff Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy

Cross-posted from Strumenti Politici in Italian


1) The Ukrainian counteroffensive is not going as good as the Western politicians and mainstream media would like it to. What do you think willhappen in the next weeks on the field? Will the result of the Ukrainian counteroffensive change the policy of the Bruxelles towards Kiev?

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed. Ukraine’s armed forces may be able to achieve some tactical gains but there is no prospect of any kind of strategic breakthrough. The material and human costs of the failed offensive have been huge and slowly but surely the military balance is shifting decisively in Russia’s favour. Notwithstanding massive Western assistance, Ukraine is clearly losing the war. It remains to be seen if that  reality prompts Western decisionmakers to embrace diplomacy and seek a negotiated end to the war that could safeguard Ukraine’s future. That depends on the strength of realist and pragmatic voices among Western elites. Because the West’s leaders have invested so much political capital in the defeat of Russia in Ukraine they will find it difficult to change course. I hope they do change direction but it may take a while and, in the meantime, Ukraine’s immense suffering will continue.

2) Should the West be afraid of an escalation with the Russian Federation? Do you think a local fight between Poland and Belarus, for example, is possible? Would it escalate to a continental or global dimension?

One of the most worrying things about the war has been the West’s lack of fear concerning escalation. The persistent pattern has been ever greater escalation of the West’s proxy war with Russia and of its material support for Ukraine. It is the West’s actions that have led to such a prolonged war. Had the EU and NATO restrained and curtailed its aid to Kiev, the war would have ended months ago and  Ukraine would have been saved from immense damage, including the lost lives of hundreds of thousands of its people. Yes, Ukraine would have lost territory and its statehood would have been curtailed. But it would have survived as a sovereign and independent state. The prolongation of the war has and will continue to lead to further Ukrainian territorial losses. If the war doesn’t end soon Ukraine’s fate will be that of a rump dysfunctional state completely dependent on a West that will be far less generous in its support once the fighting has stopped.

It is unlikely the war will escalate to an all-out conflict between Russian and the West  but it remains possible, including, as you suggest, as a result of a Polish-Belarus clash. Bear in mind, too, that there are extremists in the anti-Russia camp who relish such escalation and have been pushing for it since the war began. Western neocons and Ukrainian ultra-nationalists are convinced Russia is a paper-tiger that will fold if you confront it. Crazy thinking but they do really appear to believe such nonsense.

3) Is history history repeating itself in Ukraine? I refer to the German tanks rolling east again or even to a hypothetical great clash between the maritime “Anglo-American” empire and the Russian land empire.

At the moment, the German (and British) tanks are not rolling east. They are being destroyed by Russian artillery, airpower and anti-tank missiles. The same is true of all the other types of western armour that has been supplied to Ukraine. Sober elements among the Western military must have taken note and realise that Russia has the capacity to defeat the West in any direct, large-scale conventional encounter. The also realise that such a war would rapidly escalate to the nuclear level because that is the only way the United States would be able to defend Europe from a Russian onslaught. Fortunately, there is no evidence that Russia has any such intentions. Throughout the war Putin has sought to restrain Western escalationism by not over-reacting to provocations such as the supply of German Leopard tanks to Ukraine,

 4) Under an academic point of view, do you think this war was inevitable? And most importantly, is its result inevitable, already   determined by historical elements and being its manifestation just a matter of time, or can it be moulded by some specific choices of the politicians or the generals?

The Russo-Ukraine war is the most un-inevitable and avoidable war in history. It could have been prevented by NATO restraining its expansion to Russia’s borders and desisting from its military build-up of Ukraine. It could have been prevented by implementation of the Minsk agreements that would have returned rebel Donets and Lugansk to Ukrainian sovereignty whilst at the same time protecting the rights and autonomy pro-Russia elements in Ukraine. Minsk failed because Ukrainian ultra-nationalists sabotaged implementation of the agreements and the West let them get away with it. The war could have been averted by serious negotiations about European security that would have assuaged Russian fears and respected its interests in relation to the Ukraine.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was an illegal act of aggression but it was far from being unprovoked. Ukraine and the West share responsibility for the outbreak of war. Importantly, the war could have ended in weeks if the peace negotiations in Istanbul in spring 2022 had succeeded. Those negotiations failed because – with Western support – Ukraine walked away from a deal that would have limited the damage to its territoriality and sovereignty and stabilised its relations with Russia.

5) How do you explain the fact that Finland and Sweden have given up their traditional neutral position? Is Ireland or Austria going to follow the same path?

Finland and Sweden becoming members of NATO is not as radical a step as it might seem. For decades the two states have been closely aligned and in collaboration with NATO. The danger is that membership of NATO will lead to the establishment of US military bases on Swedish and Finnish territory. That would be seen as threating by Russia. For historical reasons, Austria’s relationship with NATO has always been more detached than that of Sweden and Finland and I don’t envisage that situation changing. Ireland’s practical collaboration with NATO has been developing for years and has increased considerably during the course of the present war, but public opinion remained wedded to the idea of Irish neutrality. All this is a great pity because a firm neutral bloc in Europe could have helped keep diplomacy alive and played a constructive role in efforts to achieve a ceasefire and a peace settlement. Neutral European states could also have allied themselves to the Global South’s growing campaign for negotiations to end the war.

6) Today, how difficult is for a University professor to express his opinions without fear of censorship or disdain from the media or the colleagues? Unfortunately, in Italy we have had some bad experience in this matter.

It’s not difficult for me because I am ‘retired’ and can say and do what I like, including travel to Russia for academic conferences. The pressure on colleagues in less favourable situations to conform to the Western ‘party line’ on the Ukraine war is enormous and helps explain their reticence about speaking out or even sharing their scholarly expertise, since all efforts at impartiality are censored or shouted down. Of course, academics in Ukraine are under far greater threat and pressure to conform. It is also perilous, if not impossible, for Russian academics to express critical  views  about the war.

7) Do you think that the EU will actually accept Ukraine as a member? Or will it delay the accession again and again, just like NATO is doing?

I think the EU’s encouragement of a war to the proverbial last Ukrainian means it has a moral obligation to admit Ukraine as a member. But for all the EU’s current fine words it will take years for Ukraine to become a member, if ever. Ironically, the country that will pose the most formidable obstacle to Ukraine’s membership of the EU will be the state that has been its staunchest supporter during the war – Poland. For all the common anti-Russian nationalist rhetoric, economically and politically, Poland and Ukraine’s interests clash in the EU context. Poland is the country that has the most to lose by Ukraine’s entry to the EU, and that may be the reason it won’t happen. 

I suppose a defeated, dysfunctional rump Ukrainian state could become a member of NATO at some time in the future but even that would require Russia’s acquiescence as well as the unanimity of all its members.

8) What can the EU do to help stop the war?

Abandon war-mongering and embrace diplomacy. Rediscover its identity as a pro-peace project. Use its formidable skills and experience at negotiation, compromise and fudge  to secure a ceasefire and a lasting peace settlement.

9) Next year the presidential elections will be held in the United States. Do you think that something can change for the better?

Biden could well lose the election because of the war. Presumably that will mean a win for Trump. The problem with Trump is that he talks a lot but delivers little. Now Trump seems to favour peace in Ukraine but it was his administration that accelerated NATO’s military build-up in Ukraine. Putin will be very wary of whoever becomes US President. Putin will only end the war on terms that guarantee Russia’s security and safeguard the interests of pro-Russian Ukrainians. If necessary, he will fight the war to the bitter end and then impose a highly punitive peace.

The window for a negotiated end to the war is closing rapidly. This autumn could be diplomacy’s last chance to secure any kind of a settlement. If that doesn’t happen, Ukraine’s fate will be decided on the battlefield and when the guns go silent, the Ukrainian state may not exist in any meaningful sense.

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