Paul Rogers on 'The Ukraine Crisis'

Blog by Paul Rogers

The talk can be watched here.

This is an awful subject to try and talk about. What I’d like to try and do, is try and look back and see how we’ve got to here, why it has happened, what has happened and where we are two weeks into this war, and what might happen next and what might be the best sort of outcome we could look for.

I won’t go into any detail in any one area because there is an awful lot to cover. I recognise that for many people it’s a very difficult subject.

I should say, in fairness to my colleagues at Bradford, that in the Peace Studies Department, most of the staff over the years have been involved in things like conflict resolution, mediation, peace building, gender and violence and a whole range of issues like that.

There have always been one or two of us who looked more at the sort of ‘hard end’, ‘toys for the boys’ if you will, but the reality is that we try to understand how wars start, how they are conducted even and how they are brought to an early end.

So, to an extent, we are just one part of a department where most of the work is, bluntly, very much more positive.

Mil mentioned in his introduction that I have taught at defence colleges, which is really an oddity. I got asked to speak at the royal air force staff college back in 1982 so it was about its 40th year, yes. And that was basically to present the unilateral case for nuclear disarmament. I think there was a bit of window-dressing involved, but it’s worthwhile, I did that for a number of years.

At the end of the Cold War I thought ‘Oh well, you know maybe it isn’t quite so important, hopefully’. But they’re interested in sort of wider views, because a lot of the work in Peace Studies had assumed that there are much wider conflict problems in the world. And so I carried on doing it, in fact I still do it occasionally, I did it right up until a year or so ago with the lockdown. I may well go back to it. It’s an extraordinary opportunity just to talk to people who will always debate with you – I will always say that of any military audience. But that’s just by way of explanation.

Putin and the ‘near abroad’

What I want to try and do, as I said, is look at how we got here.

I suppose the obvious place to start is, ‘where did Putin come from?’ And I think this is very important in some ways.

I should say that virtually everything that I touch on, will be contested by somebody; that is inevitable with this sort of subject. So what I’m trying to do, I suppose, is throw particular bits of light on a very complex subject. Even to call it a subject is bad, because I mean there is so much suffering going on now because of what is happening.

As far as Putin is concerned, I think that we’ve got to go back to the late 1980s. And the very sudden collapse of the old Soviet bloc, particularly in 1989 and 1990, the end of the Berlin Wall for example. And it’s worth remembering, some people will know this, that the end of the Soviet bloc was partly a very strong exercise in civilian resistance, particularly in many Eastern European countries. This is an aspect that we forget, because it was ordinary people, starting with the Solidarnosc, the Solidarity trade union in Poland in the early 1980s was an important part of it. But the collapse was very, very quick and in essence by late 1990 and certainly by 1991 the whole Soviet Union had more or less come apart at the seams.

Basically Gorbachev, who had in many ways been responsible for it, and may well go down in history as quite an remarkable person in his own right, because he more or less brought the Cold War to an end, if very chaotically. And he was replaced by Yeltsin who I think was one of the world’s most famous alcoholic presidents that we’ve seen of virtually any country.

The collapse was extraordinary, and almost immediately you had what some people called the ‘turbo-capitalism system’, or ‘hyper-capitalism’ coming in and Russia sort of embraced this. It’s when the theft of large parts of the Russian infrastructure was really gobbled up by a relatively few people.

That has persisted in many ways through to the current time.

The shock was extraordinary. In the 1990s, at one point, a third of all the people in Russia were below the poverty line. Life expectancy fell by many years for men in particular. Alcoholism was absolutely rife. And it took the best part of 10 years for Russia to climb out of that to some extent.

And within that time there was a huge concentration of wealth in relatively few hands.

Out of that mess came a group of KGB people who have many of their eyes on power. And one of them of course was Vladimir Putin.

Putin came to power at the end of the 1990s, and remains in power in different ways now. That’s essentially how it came about, but the real point is that within the Russian generations of that time, there is still an utter bitterness about the way they think that Russia was treated with contempt by the Western World, as absolute losers. And that is still there, particularly among older people, less so among the younger generation, and that is something which Putin has been incredibly clever at using in his own running of the country.

Progressively, over the last 20 years, he’s been able to achieve what is really a kind of autocracy, but aided by a relatively narrow coterie of people; you know the minister of defence Sergey Shoygu; Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff; the secretary of the security council; the FSB director – the sort of domestic spy directors; the director of foreign intelligence.

In fact, those five people form the kind of inner circle and are very closely-knit, and back Putin more or less to the hilt.

But the reality about that perception of Russia changing so quickly is still there.

I mean look at it this way; Britain got out of empire bit by bit, over about 40 years, starting with the Partition of India. Forty years after the end of empire, in the early ’80s, we had still not got over it.

Russia lost their empire, or what you could consider an empire, in 40 or 50 weeks.

It is hardly surprising that the impact was so huge.

But we are now where we are, because essentially, in the last eight or 10 years in particular, Putin has really developed this idea of restoring Russia to its historic greatness. In fact almost like a Tsarist empire. And essentially that is really the crux of where he is now. You could say that to some extent it is ideological, I’m not sure really about that, but certainly that he is absolutely determined to do this.

I think that the main element behind this is the slow steady expansion of NATO eastwards, and the expansion of, the coming together of, more EU states, particularly the ones in Eastern Europe.

Back in Soviet times, and I visited Moscow several times during the Cold War years, Russians used to talk about the Russia ‘near abroad’, those countries which were actually even beyond Belarus and Ukraine which they saw as being under the Russian sphere of influence.

Now that sphere of influence didn’t just go, it very largely disappeared, and the end result was the circumstance that Putin was not prepared to accept.

That’s the overall background, there isn’t time to look at precisely where Ukraine comes into all this, but essentially he had certain demands which he made very clear in lectures towards the end of last year. And essentially it was to push NATO back, and to make sure that Russia had sort of ‘buffer states’ which would ensure they could develop rapidly and possibly even take on new territories.

That’s an indication of what he said and I think what he really wanted to see from this war against Ukraine was to establish two big buffer states to the west; one already essentially under his control, Belarus, a small population but a pretty large area. But the key one was Ukraine, with over 40 million people and one of the breadbaskets of the world.

And if you have those two states under Kremlin control, almost certainly with forward-based nuclear weapons, then that would be the basis for ‘making Russia great again’ and I think that was pretty clear cut. So obviously that’s what he wanted to do.

The latest Russian invasion

What were the precise war aims of the 24 February invasion?

Well, obviously, take full control of the broader Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, part of which was already essentially in Russian hands, with the separatists.

And also to really collapse the regime and ensure that there was a replacement regime, if you like a ‘puppet’ regime in Kyiv.

That was where I think the war plan came from.

The military plan was fairly straightforward. It looked at the business of taking Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, very quickly. Taking more control of Southern Ukraine, particularly the Black Sea coast, and connecting the area through from the Crimea through to the northeast through to the Donbass region so there will be a full sort of a belt of Russian control, or at least controlled by the new regime.

There did not seem to be an idea of occupying the whole country.

And essentially that I think that is one of the keys to what has, I think, from the Russian point of view, gone terribly wrong.

Now, obviously, when the war started a fortnight ago, a matter of a few hours from now, it did look like that was the pretty clear plan.

Although there were attacks in many parts of Ukraine, mainly on the air defence facilities and all the rest, army stores and the like, but it became pretty clear within about three days that the attack was actually failing in its key aim.

And the key aim was to take the capital quickly, starting with a major assault on Kyiv international airport. That failed, and essentially by Sunday it was very clear, that’s three days in, that Putin himself was very angry about the failure because it was not going to plan.

It was already starting, to use a military type term, to get ‘bogged down’. And why was this? I think it’s worth looking at this just a little bit into detail.

There was actually an article published in one of the Western military journals about 10 days earlier. It was by an able analyst called Tim Ripley and he was basically looking at precisely what the Russians had moved in close to the border with Ukraine.

Essentially what they had available was to complete that aim, but no more; in other words, to be able to take Kyiv, probably, but certainly to be able to expand the Donbass region.

But, he said, if you wanted to actually take over Ukraine and face opposition throughout, then Russia should have gone for a full mobilisation, to be able to occupy the country and more or less garrison it.

And the thing is that from Putin’s perspective, there was not this belief that they would be opposed. That I think is the fundamental thing.

And so if they weren’t going to be seriously opposed, and people were going to sort of come out and welcome them with flowers, then there would be no major problem.

So much so that there were many military personnel who were put in, in the initial phase, that weren’t actually military.

They were actually specialist police concerned with things like public order control and riot control, by their thousands.

So they weren’t actually trained to face up to the very determined resistance led by the Ukrainian army, most of whom had actually been fighting at some time or other in the Donbass region over the previous five years.

And that seems to be the huge error that they hit.

I don’t want to go into the military detail, it becomes ‘toys for boys’ I know, but there is one other element.

That is, it is said by people who do actually study the history of land warfare in Eurasia that there is one basic problem; you never actually try to take somebody else’s territory in spring or autumn, which is the time of mud. It’s as simple as that.

This is why, during the Second World War, Stalin used to talk about general Frost – the real aid to the Soviet Army was that everything was frozen.

It looks like there has been a terrible mistake in timing made on the side of the Russian army.

So, basically, three days in, Putin’s, almost his whole policy was under threat. And it was pretty clear that essentially the Russians did not have an army with the ability to do what was intended.

I should just point out one thing here. I know again this is on the military side, but it is actually important.

In the Russian system, while you have a pretty sizeable set of armed forces, the actual active army at any one time is very big, it’s about 400,000 people. Compare that to the British army which is only a fifth of that size. It’s less than the American army but the real difference is, with the American army and for that matter the British army, they are volunteer armies. They are not conscripts.

In the case of Russia, if you take the whole of the armed forces, at any one time about 40 percent of them are conscripts. And they only are conscripts for a year.

So, they are not especially well-trained, and they are also young. Most of them are aged 19, or 20, some even 18. But I’ll come back to that later, it’s important in terms of where we may go from here. [In the Q&A section, Paul explained how some of the most powerful opposition forces in Russia against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, who fought for the safety and wellbeing of their conscripted children.]

Now that is the armed forces as a whole. In the case of the army it’s an even higher proportion. It is probable that something like half of all the troops in Ukraine at present, about 180,000 of them, are actually young conscripts with no experience of actual conflict, and also under the impression that they were not even going to war. And this is one of the many reasons why the army itself has a very major morale problem. So we’re dealing almost from the start with what we might call ‘personnel issues’.

What has happened therefore in the last week, 10 days, is a slow attempt to move to a different form of warfare. Which is basically, well to be blunt, it’s much more terror-driven.

It’s aiming at civilian populations and urban centres in the hope that the capacity of Ukraine to resist what Putin is trying to do is undermined.

We’re in the fairly early stages of that [speaking on 10 March]. That itself is proving difficult for the Russians because they don’t have the exact kind of equipment and forces that you need to do that, because they weren’t planning for it – they have to bring it in – which is why things seem to be rather slower now.

It is also true that the Ukraine army itself, with lots of support from the civilian population, both military and non-military, is offering extraordinary opposition and that is proving very difficult for the Russians.

I do not think that that in any way will stop them; I wish it would.

And we’re now at 14 days into the war, and the Russian air force still does not have aerial supremacy, it doesn’t even have aerial superiority. It’s actually finding problems with the Turkish-made drones that Ukraine is flying and many other things.

Also, and this is horrible thing to say when this is under the aegis of Peace News, armaments are flying into Ukraine* from the West. Mainly short-range things, anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles, but they’re going in in very large numbers. One American report reckoned that 17,000 anti-tank missiles have been delivered already, with many more to go.

Which means essentially the terrible thing is that Russia probably cannot win this war. Ukraine cannot lose it in the sense that there will be the resistance.

Yet, at the moment, there seems to be no prospect of any direct way out. I’m sorry to be so blunt but it’s probably best to say that, and we can explore this as much as we like in discussion.

Nuclear threats and Western sanctions

But there’s more things to talk about I’m afraid. One obviously is that the Western policy, led largely by the United States, has been really two-fold. Not to go to war directly with any Russian armed group, whether it’s the army, the air force or even the navy.

The reason for that is of course is this threat given by Putin that if there was this sort of engagement that there would be the risk of attack with nuclear weapons.

That is something that is affecting the NATO thinking a great deal. It’s a new thing that they’ve never had to face.

Therefore sanctions have become very important. And in fact the degree of sanctioning that is going on is certainly unprecedented for a country the size of Russia and it’s going to come as a real shock I think, particularly to the head of the Russian central bank.

Now while Russia is in a position to resist sanctions for quite a long time, it is going to be decreasingly easy to do so. Russia is prepared for this. It has lots of oil and gas to sell. It has built up foreign exchange reserves, in fact reserves generally of about $600bn – but most of those are actually held in banks overseas and the central bank can’t get at them.

So, in fact, the sanction issue is in fact a very major one. We perhaps have to face up to the fact, those of you who are sort of familiar with Peace Studies perhaps will know, that essentially there is a term used which is called ‘structural violence’.

There are different forms of violence. Some come not through direct violence but through indirect, more structural, violence. And, in a sense, the use of sanctions, particularly at this level, is a form of structural violence.

Now you might say that it is legitimate in a case like this, it is fundamentally not concerned with physical violence, but on the other hand, psychologically, from the other side, it is seen as a violent attempt against them.

And that is probably one of the things which is motivating Putin to ensure that Russia goes for much more severe action in its determination to win in Ukraine. And that, I think, is something that we are going to see unfold in the near future.

The role of China

There’s another aspect here that I think needs to be pointed out. People of my generation who can remember the Cold War all-too-vividly have this picture in our minds of this huge solid empire, and one assumes that Russia is like that.

Geographically it is, and it is a superpower in one respect – and one respect only – and that of course is nuclear arsenals.

In every other respect, Russia is not a superpower.

I mean, if you look at the total GDP-type wealth of Russia, it is far less than that of Germany, less than that of Britain or France, less than that of even Italy or Spain.

I think it’s about an eighth of the GDP of China, and probably about a twelfth of the GDP of the United States.

In the whole list of how wealthy countries are, Russia comes in at about number 12.

It’s also surprising to know that it’s not even the second biggest arms spender after the United States. It comes in fifth, after China, India and interestingly, Britain, although you wouldn’t know that from what we’re told.

So, essentially, Russia is not a major economic power. It has capacities, particularly with its oil and gas reserves, but it is not major, which means essentially that it is extremely important for Russia to have at least one, major, very powerful ally.

And it does feel that it has that in the person of president Xi of China. But essentially China is really a far more important state than most people realise in this. Xi did make it clear that he would back basically Putin. The way that Chinese security thinking has been going in recent years is that, clearly, the United States, in spite of all its problems in Afghanistan and elsewhere, still sees itself as the world superpower. And even looks down pretty strongly on the EU.

As far as China is concerned, if you have China itself that is good enough, but if you have China as part of a Eurasian bloc with Russia then that is combined certainly a superpower level of what we’re talking about.

Now, of course, Russia may be very small economically compared to China, but in other respects it is a major asset to China. And much will depend on – I fear over the next few months, hopefully it is only a few weeks – in what role China plays.

The early signs are that China is getting very concerned about the way that this is going and the evidence is arms.

For example, China had very close relations with Ukraine, not just in grain imports but in other things. It had quite a sizeable diplomatic presence, a fairly large commercial presence. These people were not told that there was going to be a major invasion by the Russians, because, it appears that Beijing did not know the full extent to which Putin was prepared to go. They had to scramble to get many of their people out of Ukraine, and that has left a bad feeling in Beijing.

Certainly, I don’t read Chinese but, getting information from academics who do, they say that this is even coming out in some of the domestic literature, so Putin may have an added problem there.

Resistance in Russia

So, where we are now, I’ve been going on for 25 minutes and I don’t want to do much more.

What is likely to happen? Let’s be honest about this. It is possible, just possible, that the impact of what has gone wrong from Putin’s side might finally get through; maybe not directly to him, but maybe through to some of the people who are much closer to him. Essentially if that is the case then there could be a change. There are some small indications – at least there are talks still happening – but I really wouldn’t push it. It doesn’t look likely at the moment. That could change in the future.

I am bound to say that, if there are changes, and Putin begins to recognise that he can’t achieve his aims, that would be mainly due to changes in Chinese attitudes.

Then that may mean that there is a significant change.

But that will depend in part on what is happening in Russia itself. Now talking both to people in Russia and people in Britain who are Russian, it’s very difficult to get a clear picture.

From what I can judge – I’m sure many of you will have your own information and your own views – Putin has very strong control of the state media. And it’s very clear that the closing down of some of the independent stations last Saturday was really because there was a huge concern about what they were saying.

One or two of those stations did actually, although they were mainly in Russian, they did actually have English language versions, and looking at those in recent days, they are astoundingly critical of Putin and reporting to people what was really going on. I think some of them are still operating, but only on the international web, not within Russia. But the point is, there was an independent media, very small which is still operating in Russia.

The regime, the Kremlin itself, has had to come down very strongly on dissent. They have the new rule brought in about the risk of up to 15 years in jail. [On 4 March, Russia's parliament passed a law imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally ‘fake’ news about the Russian military, including over the war in Ukraine.]

I think at the last count nearly 14,000 people had been arrested in the last two weeks for anti-war demonstrations. And they are still persisting, in spite of the fact that people are being treated extremely roughly.

So what I’m saying is that it is not all as solid as you might think. But there are some other aspects to this as well.

One is that, although social media have been largely closed down, you can’t close them completely.

And also we have something like three million people in Russia who are actually Ukrainian.

Of course, they mostly, if not all of them, will have family across the border in Ukraine and they will be in touch in with family members. Now it is true that there have been reports that some family in Ukraine are finding that their relatives in Russia have been basically tied in, sucked in, to the overall propaganda and are not buying the idea of what is really happening. But that is only partial, and bit by bit, unless you close down ordinary telephone connections, essentially, news will slowly get through. Now I know that many people are communicating by WhatsApp and other means, but these can be closed as well.

In other words, it’s going to be more difficult for Putin to control the narrative in the way that he has done so far. He’s obviously getting fairly desperate in trying to do that at the present time. That’s a way in which his own position might be undermined.

But we do have to remember that his own career, and what he plans, and what the people around him plan, will come apart at the seems if he is unable to achieve his aims in Ukraine itself. So we don’t know what is going to happen, but there are signs here that it may become more problematic for Putin.

I wish I could say an end is likely, but it is not at the present time.

A feature of modern war

Let me just end with three or four points, one of which I think will be uncomfortable.

In fact, I’ll start with that one if I may; I think it has to be said.

The Russian military, the officers, are using very tough measures, basically attacking cities. This is something that Russia did very much in particular in the Second Chechnyan War in the 1990s. It was a practice in Syria, particularly in the siege of Aleppo. It is a feature of war generally, in different circumstances.

I could identify, quite easily, particular examples where in fact Western states have been involved in that.

One of the most recent examples where there was Western involvement would have been the almost saturation bombing of and artillery firing on western Mosul at the end of Operation Inherent Resolve, the very intense air war against ISIS between 2014 and 2018. After the assault by American and French artillery, and American and quite probably British bombers and the rest, also the militias from Iraq and particularly the Iranian-backed militias.

The few journalists of any kind, mostly Iraqi, who were actually able to go to western Mosul in the months after the assault, said it was like Stalingrad.

This can happen in any form of warfare. Nobody really knows how many people were killed in western Mosul but it was several thousand for sure. And it’s worth also saying that when you look at the latest information from the War Project at the Watson Institute of Brown University (they just brought out their new report) they basically reckon that the ‘war on terror’ overall – including, if you will, what has happened in Somalia and Yemen – has cost about 900,000 lives in the last 20 years.

The expenditure, if you’re interested in that, is now something like $8 trillion.

So, we’re dealing with warfare on a huge scale and, if you take that war against ISIS, fought almost entirely remotely, by stand-off weapons, cruise missiles, drones and the rest, that was hardly reported in the West.

So, while what the Russians are doing is absolutely appalling in Ukraine, it is part, I’m afraid, of a form of warfare which, in its different ways, although in a very extreme form, is no more costly so far than what we’ve seen in the ‘war on terror’.

Now, that I’m afraid is a reality. It may be very uncomfortable and it’s not the sort of thing that one normally says in public but that is where we are.

World food security under threat

Some other issues that I think we’ll want to look at: I’ve mentioned Ukraine as a breadbasket.

Ukraine is a very fertile country, a very good cereal producer; oats, wheat, maize and others. And it exports to many countries, particularly countries in the Global South. In fact if you look at any aerial photograph of Odessa, you see at any one time in the port, the big grain ships loading up. The fact that they are not now, and the risk is they won’t be for the next six months or so.

This is the planting season in Ukraine, and if the crops aren’t planted they won’t be harvested, and it’s a major factor in world food security. So that has to be dealt with as well, but the trouble is that under the general free market system, even if there is enough food to go around in the overall food reserve worldwide, particularly the big ones in the Midwest silos in the US, then the food prices will go up through the roof.

So we have that potential problem, which requires very strong action and support from many wealthy states if a food crisis does develop later this year.

If war is the answer....

Another thing obviously is, you know Henry V Act Two Prologue, ‘now thrive the armourers’. This is an extraordinarily good time to be an arms manufacturer and we always tend to forget that.

But, believe me, whether you like it or not, there will be a lot of money being made off this. And that is a facet of the world we live in.

That means, at the end, you end up getting pretty depressed because you’re not even beginning to talk about the effect that this might have on climate change.

But, and this is the other thing, the more that people realise that this is what’s really happening and even more so realise that whatever else we have, we have an extraordinary humanitarian disaster which needs help now. That in a sense is the other side of the coin.

And you look at what many countries in Western Europe are doing, look at the way the Germans are receiving refugees in large numbers in Berlin and are immediately finding places for them.

That, I think, is at least reassuring that humanity is still around. And I think we have to recognise that.

I wish I could praise in any sense, the actions of the current British government but you wouldn’t expect me to and, frankly, I think the action here has been absolutely appalling [as of 10 March].

But, essentially, that is the kind of thing where we can at least still have an effect on this. At least in this terrible time remind people repeatedly why refugees are refugees in the first place.

And this applies right across the board. I think there is a possibility that the war may not last as long as we fear, because I think what may happen is that the undermining within Russia, of what they’re doing, and almost certainly the role of China which I think is going to change or is beginning already to change subtly. And that may mean that even Putin has to recognise that he cannot get his way.

I was speaking to a very experienced Russian commentator recently about this, and I said: ‘Well, look, Putin has more or less full control of the media. Suppose he cannot achieve his objective, and has to settle for less, can he sell that to most Russians?’ And the person looked at me and said: ‘Yes, probably he can.’

And that’s the extraordinary thing; it may be that Putin will actually go for some sort of compromise in the belief, rightly or wrongly, that he can survive.

Now, that’s more than a straw in the wind, in fact I think that it’s quite possible the way things are going.

Beyond that, there are no easy ways forward, except you know the whole business of saying that the whole idea of wars is so crazy. You know it’s the old saying, ‘if war is the answer, then it’s a stupid question.’

But I think that we’ve got to go and do a huge amount to convince people of that, even in the midst of this conflict.