Jonathan McCormick – Nicolai Petro on Ukraine’s prospects: If something happens in Kiev, it will be sudden and dramatic

So, we have reached the point where the first speculations concerning the removal of Zelensky are appearing

Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island and author of The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us About Conflict Resolution

Cross-posted from Štandard (Slovakia) May 12, 2024


No country which is weaker and which borders a larger and stronger neighbour can survive if it makes an enemy of that neighbour. This has simply never happened in human history. The Americans and NATO obviously think only of their own security interests in relation to Russia, and Ukraine is only interesting to them as a tool to defeat it, says American professor Nicolai Petro.

As the situation in Ukraine gets steadily more desperate, with military experts now considering a possible collapse of Ukraine’s front line, some Western voices have begun to dismiss the conventional wisdom that negotiations must eventually take place between Moscow and Washington, calling instead for direct talks between Ukrainian and Russian leaders. One such voice is Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island and author of The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us About Conflict Resolution.

Fluent in both Russian and German from his youth, Petro served as Special Advisor for Policy in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs at the US State Department in the early 1990s, as dramatic and historic events were unfolding. Since that time he has written extensively on Russian foreign and domestic policy, and was invited in 2008 by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences to come and talk about ‚future visions‘ of Ukraine. This began a long-term cooperation with Ukrainian academia which continues to this day. His recent remarks in favour of direct talks between Ukraine and Russia, which came as something of a surprise to me, have been echoed by the likes of John Mearsheimer, Chas Freeman and others. And so – as the mood among Western leaders deteriorates and more desperate measures are being considered – I wanted to hear more of what Nicolai Petro had to say on the possibility of some sort of directly negotiated settlement between the two warring countries.

You’ve recently argued that the logical path to peace for Russia is not to negotiate with the West but rather directly with Ukraine, and that Ukraine should see that it’s in their interest to deal directly with Russia – which would essentially cut the West out of the picture. Given the strong influence of ultra-nationalist figures in the current Ukrainian government, do you see any realistic chance of that happening?

Someone more knowledgeable than I am, and with his ear to the upper echelons of Ukrainian society – and who was Zelensky’s advisor until January of last year – Oleksiy Arestovych, has made a similar point: that there is no alternative, for a Ukraine that wants to have agency in its own affairs, but to regain its sovereignty. Not only from Russia but also from the West. And that requires negotiating directly with the only country that can guarantee Ukraine’s stability and safety and prosperity, and that is Russia. Because, as I’ve said many times, no country that is weaker and that borders on a larger more powerful neighbour can survive by making that neighbour its enemy. That has just never happened in human history. And as a result, we will have to come to that at some point. The question is only at what cost.

Why couldn’t Ukrainian leaders see that?

Because they believed Boris Johnson’s lie, when the Istanbul accords were derailed. At that time it seemed plausible to believe that a well-funded Ukraine could be given sufficient military supplies to fight back the Russian army. And in answer to the obvious question: How is that going to happen, given that Russia has a population, let’s say five times larger than Ukraine? Well, in the same way, presumably, that smaller, more dedicated countries have fought, historically, against larger empires. And that is by demoralizing them. And I remember the articles written at the outset of the Ukrainian counteroffensive last year, that once Ukrainian forces begin to make advances, the Russian front lines will collapse and they will flee. As a matter of fact they would even flee from Crimea. And so it wasn’t just a matter of supplying weapons that were, of course, supposed to be superior both in quality and in quantity to their Russian counterparts. And it wasn’t only that these be provided in very large numbers, along with all the additional social support that would be needed for Ukrainian society. It was also the aspect of morale, and the demoralization of the Russian troops, that would make a difference. None of this came to pass, and as a result we have a situation on the battlefield which is not successful for Ukraine. But if it had succeeded, this should have provided an impetus. As some argued in the West at the time: once Ukraine recaptures what it wants to recapture we will then rein it in, and Ukraine will be able to achieve a negotiated settlement much more to its liking than what it achieved in Istanbul. And now we have the reverse happening. I think the logic is true, but having failed, Russia is now in a much better position to open the negotiations. And it is interesting to me that Putin, who had disavowed not long ago the relevance of the Istanbul accords for future negotiations, is now starting to refer to them – I should say not Putin himself, but his press spokesman Dmitry Peskov – as a plausible starting point for negotiations, taking into consideration how realities have changed.

In what sense can the Istanbul accords be a starting point for negotiations, now that four oblasts, in addition to Crimea, have been annexed to Russia, and Russia is not likely ever to agree to give them back?

No, but Russia is still advancing within those four regions and looking to ‚liberate‘ them, as it sees it, to their administrative borders. When that happens, as seems likely, will Russia continue? And to what end? If I am right, that Russia invaded not in order to subjugate Ukraine but in order to force it to accept neutrality – to keep it from manoeuvring in ways that Russia considered threatening – then we’re essentially back to where the Istanbul accords left us: with the same deal on the table of security and neutrality for Ukraine in exchange for Russia not taking more territory, for not pushing further. It’s still the same exchange. So let’s assume for a moment one scenario, which is being more and more widely discussed. There’s a breakthrough on the front lines, the lines collapse, Ukraine has no defensive positions left. Russia can now either move forward – for example in the direction of major cities, Kharkiv, Kiev, Odessa – or not. Let’s assume Russia really doesn’t want to do that, because of the costs involved – in all senses. Then the option of not doing that becomes what they are offering – because they could obviously do it, given the collapse of Ukraine’s lines. And they say to Ukraine: we will in fact guarantee the security of your borders, in a multilateral guarantee with other parties agreeing to serve as guarantors, as they did in the 1990s with the Budapest Memorandum. And this then becomes part of the negotiations.

Right, the Budapest Memorandum, which involved Western countries as well. And you foresee this as a possibility as to how things might be settled, some sort of similar agreement for Ukraine’s security, guaranteed by Russia on one side and Western countries on the other?

Logic would dictate that if a country’s elite wants to survive, then in the face of military collapse it negotiates. It negotiates essentially a surrender. World War I ended without Germany being invaded, because the high command of the German staff said: Well, we lost the battle, we are now vulnerable, let’s cut a deal. Which is why they suffered at the settlement in Versailles, but not to the extent that the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires did, which were totally dismembered. And we know that the German high command basically posed an ultimatum to Kaiser Wilhelm II. They said we can’t fight anymore – there are no resources – so you need to abdicate, so that we can negotiate a ceasefire and surrender. So that would be the scenario presumably in Ukraine now. Again, not an unusual scenario – basically involving, as it did after World War I, a military coup replacing the political leadership at the time.

And how likely do you think a military coup is? You said recently that you think it’s unlikely, given the presence of Western military intelligence everywhere the Ukrainian government and military. So any little hints of a coup being organized would immediately be reported to the authorities in Kiev.

Yes, that is a concern, but that’s not to say that Western intelligence services couldn’t decide to turn a blind eye, or couldn’t also decide that it’s time for Zelensky to go. There are clearly tensions already, about which we have not only hints but actual public statements by Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of Defense, and Vice President Kamala Harris, saying: Ukraine, stop bombing oil refineries in Russia – that raises the price of oil and endangers Joe Biden’s re-election. Much is said about the influence of the West in Ukraine, but this influence is a double-edged sword. On the one hand we have influence because we could withdraw the support Ukrainians need simply in order to pay their bills and fund the war effort. But will we do that? And what would the costs be? That depends on what we see as a plausible outcome. If in the higher echelons of power they decide there is no way to save Ukraine, then the strategy in the West might well be simply to fund Ukraine at a persistent but ever decreasing level in order to further weaken Russia – the objective being: who cares about Ukraine, we need to contain Russia. And the longer we can draw out this bloodletting between Russia and Ukraine, the better. The better for the United States strategically, and that’s an argument that makes sense in Washington. But if that’s the case, then it cannot have escaped the attention of Ukrainian political leaders. Hence the double-edged sword. And you see hints of this in the frustration attributed to Zelensky, and in the caustic statements by the Ukrainian foreign minister and several people in the president’s party in the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, that the West should be doing much more: ‚We are all frustrated and disappointed in the West; we are indeed angry with the West.‘ Then the question becomes: If we’re being hung out to dry, why not negotiate a settlement with Russia, because they can actually give us what we want. Whereas the West says it will give us what we want but is refusing to do so. So we can’t fight and we we’re just bleeding to death, whereas if we reach a settlement – an unpalatable settlement, a hurtful settlement, but nevertheless a settlement – we can then begin to rebuild. And that kind of settlement can only be reached directly with Russia, which the West does not want. So again, that’s an incentive, as I see it, for negotiating directly with Russia, and one that has been mentioned many times now by senior Ukrainian officials.

What do you know about what’s happening within the Ukrainian political establishment – with hard-core nationalists on the one hand and moderates on the other – that might suggest this is more likely, or less likely, to happen?

If something happens it will be sudden and dramatic. There is no political life in Ukraine anymore, because there are no elections. In order to have a political life you have to have political competition, and elections have been suspended for the foreseeable future at every level – local, parliamentary and presidential. So there’s nothing, there are no debates. And the president therefore retains his office and his absolute majority in parliament. Which politicians in his party do not seem especially happy about, because they believe they are being scapegoated. Because Zelensky’s popularity remains fairly high – it has suffered somewhat as the political and military situation has deteriorated, but nevertheless it remains much higher than the popularity of the parliament. So as soon as there are elections, obviously everyone in parliament is going to go and be replaced with somebody. And so, whatever happens – in terms of changing the dynamics of the conflict and enabling negotiations – will happen, I think, by virtue of personalities replacing other personalities and beginning to speak about the need to do things in a very different light. And it will have to happen, as I said, fairly suddenly. And if it becomes a matter of senior officials in Ukraine reaching out to have a negotiation with Russia, then I think far right militarized units would oppose this and launch an attack on Kiev, and probably themselves try to oust the current government and form some sort of national committee for salvation or something like that. And so in order to avoid that – which is an obvious thing to worry about – the negotiations would have to be well underway and an agreement essentially presented as a fait accompli. And people would then have to be brought on board, larger groups of people, constituencies would have to be appealed to – to support the government in its peace efforts, and to oppose the nationalists who are committed to war and therefore the eventual destruction of Ukraine at any cost. That would be the argument.

And these negotiations would have to happen in secret somehow beforehand?

Yeah, I think so. And then also there would have to be efforts made by the police and the military of Ukraine, essentially to arrest or contain key nationalist leaders who are on record as opposing any compromise short of victory for Ukraine. So it would be that kind of coup – not really slow moving and not overnight either. But essentially still a coup.

And is that feasible, given the fact that – as you mentioned when we talked last year – these far right leaders have been placed in positions at the highest levels of government, precisely in the area of internal security? Wouldn’t be hard to arrest them?

It could be, but I don’t know enough about the people in the Kiev menagerie to really understand who feels committed one way or another. On the eve of his resignation, Oleksiy Arestovych was a Ukrainian nationalist. Now he’s all for ‚negotiate with Russia or we’re all doomed.‘ And he’s not the only one. You see a lot of that now.

Would the West be able to prevent a coup of this sort, if they didn’t want it to happen?

I don’t think the West has enough special forces in Kiev and Ukraine to actually prevent it. They would be forewarned but unable to stop it. They could, at that point, exercise leverage on whoever the alternatives would be, and say ‚do this‘ or ‚don’t do that‘. But I don’t know what the scenario will be and it’s a very fluid situation. Right now we’re in a kind of ‚in between‘ period. Nine months ago we were saying ‚Ukrainian victory is on the horizon, let’s plan for negotiations with a defeated Russia.‘ Now we’re in the middle period of: ‚Oh, things are not going very well. Let’s try to sit it out, provide a minimum level of support and see how it goes.‘ In any case, we’re not ready in the United States to make any serious decisions before November. We just can’t focus on Ukraine right now, we have to focus on the American presidential elections. Everything else is a distraction. After November, whoever is in power will have a free hand. So November-December is the ideal time to actually make an innovative proposal with respect to Ukraine. But what the situation on the ground will be, we don’t know. Will it be one in which Ukraine has survived, or has theoretically retaken some territory and moved on the offensive, with Western assistance – new weapons and new troops and things like that? Or will it be, as people like John Mearsheimer and Lieutenant Colonel Davis have said, that the lines will collapse and it’ll be obvious that there’s nothing but military defeat ahead for Ukraine? The Americans can plan for these various contingencies, but I think the basic decision as to what to do next has to be made, and will be made, by Ukrainians themselves. But they have to decide that they have the agency to do that, and be willing to think again in the interests of the country of Ukraine, not in the interests of the United States. Obviously the Americans and NATO are only thinking about the interests of their own security with respect to Russia, and Ukraine is only interesting to them as a tool to beat Russia. So it’s important that Ukrainians think independently, recognising that ultimately only Russia can guarantee Ukraine’s security – not the West. And Russia is not demanding so-called ‚co-optation‘ – to co-opt or subsume Ukraine. What it has demanded is neutrality. Which is rather a generous position, I would say.

Isn’t it more in Russia’s interest not to subsume Ukraine, but rather to keep it as a separate state that can serve as a buffer between Russia and NATO?

Well the interesting thing about that is that Ukraine is being offered a curious combination of security and economic prosperity: security by Russia agreeing to the current borders – guaranteed also by a number of other countries – and prosperity by membership in the EU.

Which Russia will not object to?

Will not object to, right. That was part of the Istanbul accords as well. It’s an interesting strategy, because what it ultimately does, oddly enough, is to reconstitute Ukraine in what I have been arguing for, for more than a decade. Actually sixteen years ago – in 2008, my first trip to Ukraine – I gave a talk at Kharkiv University, which was later published. And I said: Ukraine needs to be a bridge between Russia and the West. And by linking the essential security and economic interests of Russia and Europe in Ukraine, it effectively constitutes Ukraine as that bridge.

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