Ukraine: The Difficult March to Victory

The prevailing conviction in the West was that President Volodymyr Zelensky would be unable to manage the situation, and the world’s political establishment believed that he should be evacuated as soon as possible. Later, American support emerged, even greater than expected, says Paweł Kowal in an interview by Małgorzata Nocuń.

You have been studying Ukraine for many years. You know the political elite there, like few in Poland. Were you surprised by the full-scale war when Russia declared against Kyiv on 24 February 2022?

I had believed that war would break out, but I thought it would take a different form. I was of the opinion that there would be a repeat of the 2014 scenario in an expanded version; that Russia would try to make greater territorial gains, but it would be limited to the east of the country. Of course, I did not exclude a large-scale attack. From an analyst’s point of view, there were many indications that Putin would go all-in (redeploying troops to the border with Ukraine, replenishing missiles with fuel, etc.). But that was what reason told me, and there were also emotions, saying something quite different. Namely, we as the West have become weary of full-scale war. So I did not believe that we would experience something like that in Europe. 

We have even lost the “language of war” in Europe, meaning that Western societies are unable to debate serious threats, such as the use of weapons of mass destruction. All this made me shrink from the thought of a large-scale war. However, if I had been a high-ranking official in a European country, I would have given orders to my subordinates to prepare for war and an influx of immigrants, because the signals of an imminent war were all too numerous. 

Do you think that this decision was irrational on the part of Moscow? 

Given the rationality that Putin is guided by, this step was justified. Perhaps when deciding to use force against Ukraine he already felt strongly that his position was weakening. And the fact is that as the ratings are falling, the Kremlin uses war as an instrument to help stay in power. So in the Kremlin’s calculation, war was a rational move. 

It is an intense conflict the likes of which Europe has not seen since the end of World War II, but it is controlled: it is still being fought within the borders of a single state. A certain rationality is therefore preserved in Russia’s warfare, although war always involves danger and can even accidentally spill over into neighboring countries. This is evidenced, for example, by the explosion of an Ukrainian rocket that fell on Polish territory and killed two people. 

You have always been a great ambassador for Ukraine – not only in Poland, but also in European corridors of power. You’ve repeatedly faced accusations and you’ve heard that pragmatism should rule the day in relations with Kyiv. Don’t you think that Western elites – especially in Germany, France, the United States – did not react adequately in the first days of the conflict and even later?

Politicians and analysts like me, guided by marked scepticism and suspicion of Russia’s policy, had been present not only in Poland, but in all the countries you mentioned. Outside Poland and Lithuania, however, they did not set the tone of public debate. Their voice gained prominence only after 24 February. At the beginning of the conflict, Zelensky dramatically sought support from anyone. In the first two weeks of the war, a Ukrainian-Polish alliance was born, although the Polish political elite (represented by the Law and Justice party) had not previously pursued an eastward-looking international policy at all. The Ukrainian president could not fully count on anyone.

The prevailing conviction in the West was that he would be unable to manage the situation, and the world’s political establishment believed that he should be evacuated as soon as possible.

Later, American support emerged, even greater than expected. Unusual commitment – I would say even of a personal nature – was also shown by Ursula von der Leyen, as well as by the EU institutions. I didn’t expect much from Berlin and Paris, but what surprises me most is that the turnaround in German politics still hasn’t fully taken hold. After 24 Feb., it’s hard to justify Berlin’s policy of getting along ‘somehow’ with Putin. However, I think everyone already knows that regardless of when this war ends and regardless of who wins it (although there are many indications that it will be Ukraine) Putin will no longer be a legitimate partner for anyone. Today, the policy of “understanding Russia” and dialogue with it seems not only unreasonable, but even completely inadequate.

It also contradicts German politics, which has been famous for its rationality for centuries. 

It also contradicts the German tradition regarding relations with Kyiv. Few remember that after the collapse of the Russian Empire, Germany was the first country to recognize the Ukrainian government headed by Pavlo Skoropadskyi. Berlin also recognized Ukraine’s borders along with Crimea. So Germany has some very laudable moments in its history of relations with Ukraine. Today they can invoke them. Unfortunately, the transformation of German policy is taking too long and is becoming incomprehensible. 

And what do the behind-the-scenes conversations with German politicians look like? Can they somehow justify this behavior? 

I have had more than a dozen such meetings in recent months. Behind the scenes, no German has defended Olaf Scholtz’s policies, both the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are critical of him. They claim that soon there will be a change in policy toward Moscow and the impression that Berlin is incapable of strategic thinking will be erased. It’s just that time is passing, and yet this is not happening.

Emmanuel Macron has also long relied on negotiations and rational talks with Putin. 

Yes, for too long he thought it was necessary to maintain contacts with a tyrant who pursued a policy of war crimes. In this way, he legitimized Putin’s policies to some extent. The words that were spoken in their bilateral talks don’t matter so much. In fact, this dialogue was nothing short of support for the Russian president. France has long regarded Putin as a partner for diplomatic talks. Emmanuel Macron even allowed these talks to be made public. In this context, confidential consultations would be better, they are less ostentatious and do not involve publicly legitimizing Putin’s Russia.

The dialogue with Moscow both before and after the war should develop channels of communication at a lower diplomatic and political level, and not, as was done, at the highest level.

I believe that neither before 24 February nor today is there any room for talks with Putin, as there is no indication that he is interested in peace negotiations, and similar talks only allow him to prolong his rule. 

At lower levels, talks are certainly taking place confidentially between the Kremlin and the West. 

Every time they occur, we observe (on the Russian side) an escalation of the conflict. Its intensification – from Moscow’s point of view – serves to strengthen the Kremlin’s negotiating position, mainly with the United States and the United Kingdom. Putin’s goal is to bring the talks to a head as soon as possible, but in such a way that the Ukrainians would be forced into dialogue by the West. Such a solution is the safest for the Russian president. Russia’s ruler is in a difficult position: he must fear that he may be removed from office. The Kremlin’s political elite may consider that he is exposing Russia to disintegration, and such a process could bring a post-war crisis. 

You have had close contact with Ukrainian political elites. How do you perceive Zelensky? 

During the war he has shown that he is a charismatic leader. His charisma lies in speaking, and in a dramatic situation, words become weapons. Like Karol Wojtyła or Ronald Reagan, he bases his leadership on his experience as an actor. What he learned on stage came in handy in building a kind of verbal leadership. Let us emphasize that, after all, at the beginning of the war he had virtually no other means of real action in defence of his country. All he could do was appeal to his citizens and Western leaders to behave in the manner he desired. He certainly passed the test of Weberian-type leadership – that is, charismatic leadership, and let’s recall that he had a pretty poor standing, even in his own administration. 

Do you get the impression that Zelensky and Ukraine’s political elite are moving closer to the West in terms of understanding the state as a common good?

One should be cautious in assessing this situation. At first glance, it seems that this change is taking place, but the best instrument for consolidating it will be the process of accession negotiations. In the course of these, the European Union will be able, in such areas as agriculture and business competition, for example, to introduce solutions that will support the Ukrainian middle class and curtail the influence of the oligarchy. But will the post-war reality be conducive to depleting corruption? After all, war always produces moral degradation, trauma and indifference. 

Can you imagine Ukraine without corruption?

I can imagine reducing the influence of oligarchs on the state system, building anti-corruption mechanisms and instruments supporting democracy and the rule of law. I would never say that combating corruption in Ukraine is impossible, instead I think it is very difficult, and on top of that, the war does not make it easier to solve such problems. On the contrary, it may even exacerbate certain pathologies. 

You have visited Ukraine during the war. What are your impressions, as a man who has been traveling to the East for many years?

A huge social mobilization took place. I was even struck by the fact that there is no division between the military and the rest of society there. There are trained armed formations at the front, territorial defence units behind it, and a network of volunteers connected to volunteer centers spread across the country. Volunteerism, in turn, is ingrained in the living social fabric: people collecting home-made preserves, preparing camouflage nets for the army, etc. This behavior, with great synergy and mobilization, may even look amazing in the West. It also goes a long way toward explaining why the war is going so badly for the Russians. 

We have seen that Ukrainians love their state very much. 

Yes, they are able to create props for that state where it fails. This is often very effective. I am thinking, for example, of the defence of Kyiv, or the organization of the frontline I spoke about earlier.

Do you believe in Ukraine’s membership in the European Union?

Additional questions should be asked: “when and in what form”. If I have to answer the question, “Will Ukraine be in the Union?”, my answer is ‘yes’. I believe that Ukraine will definitely join the European Community. When? It depends on what form it will take. In this context, it also matters in what direction the European Union will reform.

There is no doubt that the admission of new countries requires institutional adjustments in the Community itself.

Do these changes have to be significant? Not necessarily. Perhaps, Ukraine’s membership will also be different from the existing membership, a little less advanced. I am an opponent of “an onion Europe”, but many people on our continent think this way about the future of the Community – as a Europe of concentric circles with different levels of integration. That is, they think that the Union needs to be expanded, but not necessarily according to the old rules; without extending all the privileges connected with membership to the new countries.

As a member of the Community, Ukraine would probably participate in all its political bodies, but its privileges would be slimmer in the economic sense – it would get, for example, less accession or pre-accession funds. I do not share such a view. So it is important that Ukraine, but also Georgia and Moldova find themselves in the EU, but good terms for this membership are also important.

What can the international political elite of the EU and we, the public, do for Ukraine? How to support this country wisely? 

Sanctions should be tightened. In recent weeks, ‘sanctions’  have unfortunately become a forgotten word. The obstacles to effective sanctions should be vetted. The West will not decide to enter a full-scale war, so it has to make economic methods of pressure on Russia more effective. Another issue is solidarity, i.e. more arms supplies than have been going to the Ukrainian front so far. So that we can say that Ukrainians are able to realistically defend themselves. Solidarity could also manifest itself in the accession talks we spoke about.

Western society, on the other hand, should realize that this is also our war. This is not only about Ukraine, but also about the West. And where government sanctions don’t work, we need to ask ourselves if we should continue to maintain social relationships with Russians who support Putin and live, for example, in Poland or the Czech Republic; we have to think about consumer sanctions and so on. In our private lives, let’s do what we expect from our governments, because only such an attitude will allow us to expect more from the political elite. 

Do you find the use of nuclear weapons by Russia imaginable?

Yes, but the probability of this is low. The use of nuclear weapons ‘tactically’ is possible, but Putin himself is afraid to do it, he knows that by making this step he will reach for the ultimate argument. Also, people around him are not prepared for such a solution. 

Putin has now become hostage to his own obsessions. 

He misjudged his own capabilities. He underestimated the Ukrainians and their will to fight. Today, he faces the risk of losing power completely. I don’t like psychologizing in politics, so I can only say that he simply made the wrong choice. He was probably shown inaccurate data. He overestimated his leadership abilities, perhaps someone tricked him into thinking he was outstanding.

Will Ukraine come out of this war with any territorial losses? 

Today, there are no conditions for any concessions; if someone on the Ukrainian side wanted to make them, they would have trouble holding on to power. I am about 80 percent sure there will be no territorial concessions, especially after the cases of genocide and war crimes in Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol. Ukraine will probably show some negotiating flexibility in the context of Crimea. The peninsula has always had autonomy, so it is important for Ukraine to keep it, but inside Ukraine.

How do you envision Russia, its political elite and society after the war?

The year 1991 comes to mind – the collapse of the Soviet Union entailed the dismemberment and decentralization of the country. Today, Russia is a large and poorly administered country, so individual regions may become more autonomous, based on local leaders (very ambitious) or the mafia. Armed conflicts may start in some of the republics that are part of the Russian Federation (e.g., the North Caucasus). There will be attempts to build independent power structures, perhaps with the involvement of external actors, including three countries with interests in the region: Turkey, China and the United States.

Russia underestimated the risks of this war, and did not properly assess Ukraine’s strength and determination. 

Professor Andrzej Chwalba wrote a book Imperium korupcji [The Empire of Corruption] about this very problem. Well, the scale of corruption in Russia is so large and has such an enormous impact on public life that it can even cause what psychology calls “cognitive disorder” in government institutions. I also question the current belief in the West that Russia has been infallible and precise in its policies so far. The pathologies were obvious, but no one realized their scale – only the war has shown their full extent. Officials, the government administration, the economy, the military – all are dependent on bribes. Western societies cannot even imagine the scale on which data can be falsified. The “client effect” was also at work: Putin wanted to hear from military analysts that Ukraine was weak, so they told him that it was. All this added up to a colossal cognitive error that led Putin astray and its price will be enormous.

Paweł Kowal

is a Polish politician and former Deputy Foreign Minister. In his essays and research, as an academic, he mainly takes up the issues of Polish and European Eastern policy. He has long been doing activist and academic work in Ukraine. His publications include Koniec systemu władzy. Polityka ekipy gen. Wojciecha Jaruzelskiego w latach 1986-1989 [The End of the System of Power: The Politics of General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s Administration in 1986-1989], Warsaw 2012 Dr. Paweł Kowal is a Polish politician and former Deputy Foreign Minister. In his essays and research, as an academic, he mainly takes up the issues of Polish and European Eastern policy. He has long been doing activist and academic work in Ukraine. His publications include Koniec systemu władzy. Polityka ekipy gen. Wojciecha Jaruzelskiego w latach 1986-1989 [The End of the System of Power: The Politics of General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s Administration in 1986-1989], Warsaw 2012.

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