Viktor Kogan-Yasny: Looking Back

25 April 2024

by Viktor Kogan-Yasny

Inspiration for these notes includes the article by Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko, ‘T’he Talks That Could Have Ended the War in Ukraine,’ published in Foreign Affairs on 15 April 2024


As of 2014, Putin wanted to Finlandise Ukraine. And, if possible, to apply a little pressure and turn it into “Belorussia”  or something. And, if possible, annex it to Russia. This was the goal of the political section of the Minsk Accords, without which he would not have agreed to a ceasefire in 2014. This was a given as was the fact that such an approach was not only rejected by Ukraine’s main political elite but also proved an incredible irritant, at the level of the emotions that translate into political decisions, to the alliance of Ukraine’s political establishment with the main body of the West (at the time only Germany and France were not included). 

Zelenskyy wanted good relations with Russia but demanded a substantial review of the Minsk Accords. Putin chafed, Zelenskyy was disillusioned and put under extreme pressure. The Americans did not conceal that they wanted to be rid of Russian pressure and did not want to enter into discussion with Putin about the approach he was imposing. Covid played the role of a naturally emerging Black Swan. If, prior to Covid, Donetsk, Luhansk, even Crimea and the whole of Russia continued to maintain the overall communications continuum with Ukraine, then, when Covid came, everything was broken off and Donetsk and Luhansk effectively became territory associated with Russia and all the signs of movement in an irreversible direction were evident. 

This led to increasing irritation in Ukraine and, against that background, Putin called increasingly energetically for Ukraine to renounce NATO (something already enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution) and what he called “manifestations of Nazism”. Personal relations between Putin and Zelenskyy entered a profound crisis. The USA, late in Trump’s term, began to adopt an openly anti-Russian position while Merkel, who had played a key role in creating an atmosphere of moderation, became totally embroiled with Navalny and lost authority in the Kremlin.

Russia’s relations with the key monitoring structures – the Council of Europe and the OSCE – entered a profound and constantly evolving crisis and, not without reason, Putin suspected that their official representatives were adopting a deliberately biased, anti-Russian position in matters relating to Donbas. The OSCE Mission, under the Minsk Accords, was to monitor the dismantling of the armed forces and prevent ceasefire violations. The situation was critical in that the mission’s mandate expired in 2022 and, in the existing political conditions, no one had any plans to extend it. (And indeed, the mission was of critical importance despite – or as evidenced by – the backdrop of mutual insults and propaganda).

A drastic change in the situation seemed inevitable. Biden told Putin that Ukraine was categorically not ready to become a NATO member; in reaction to this arrogant approach of the US president, Putin not only failed to calm down but also took great umbrage and began increasingly calling for “integrity” and, in general, to heed the arguments of Sergeitsev et.al. to the effect that Ukraine as such should not exist. [1] 

Zelenskyy publicly acknowledged “his mistake”, that he had hoped for improved relations with Russia. Medvedchuk was arrested on charges of links to Donetsk and Luhansk while criminal proceedings of the same ilk were brought against Poroshenko. In Putin’s eyes, the situation had begun to go beyond the boundaries of any informal understandings there may have been.  

Since Putin’s style was downright abominable, the attention of a great many people, who might have been able to do at least something, was focused on criticising his behaviour rather than on the entire spectrum of threats and their scale. At the beginning of 2022, speaker of the Rada Stefanchuk declared that Ukraine would take into account matters of Russia’s security but when it came to its own territorial integrity would take its own decisions.

A specific Ukrainian “optimism” was gaining ground and Putin was not only well informed about it but even excessively so by the “group of claqueurs” he had created.  Threatening “exercises” began in Belarus. But no one wanted to spend days on end discussing Putin’s terms and demands. The West exhibited a profound lack of professionalism, of political culture and diplomatic skills, strongly shaped by a ‘journalistic’ mentality. The continuing visits of Its officials to Moscow were of little significance. Blinken met Lavrov a couple of times in a month, and this was considered a lot. Direct talks between Yermak and Kozak were evidently pointless. Putin had made himself practically a political pariah (serious accusations of repression against Navalny were made against him) – something that, having in mind that he is leader of a country with 5,000 nuclear warheads, is completely destructive given the need to negotiate critically important questions. And he launched the war and, moreover, did so along maximalist lines. 

A week later it was apparent that the scenario wasn’t working, after three weeks – that it wasn’t working at all. Troops had to be hastily withdrawn from the whole of central Ukraine and an attack on Kharkiv halted. But Ukraine too took serious fright. “Talks of mutual fear” began. They produced a result which, when first examined, in terms of the serious involvement of all the parties, didn’t seem bad to anyone. Given a more “relaxed” examination, however, it ceased to be suitable since it took everything back to the very “starting positions” that had, basically, caused the war.

Political progress towards a ceasefire and an agreement soon laid bare the terrible events of the war, the many “Srebrenicas”. This drew serious attention and strong feelings of protest, which totally distracted from the spectacle of political negotiations and meant that any agreement reached might end up destroying reputations. Despite this, the collective political consciousness of the defending side and their supporters around the world was full of optimism about the war. This feeling may have been based on emotions, rather than anything solid, but it had an irresistible hold on people. 

The dire forecasts of March 2022 generally gave way to an increasingly uncompromising stance. This process was fuelled by memories of a tragedy, to which every day added ever more, and for which ever broader and more emotional reasons were given. Increasingly, life was defined not so much by reality and the real-world challenges that lay ahead, but by the situation. And in Moscow, in a Russian state riddled with bureaucracy, the situation demanded complete rejection of the West. 

Lines of negotiation between Ukraine and Russia were severed amid what Ukraine saw as its forthcoming military victory over a Russia that had shown itself to be deplorable (true enough) and “weak” (not true). The critical negotiating channel between the West and Russia has not, since then, been re-established. 

Back in October 2022, there was some discussion of how things could not and should not go on like this and that we needed to find a “way”. But then all eyes were on the Ukrainian counter-offensive, politics and diplomacy turned into an endless street, and time almost ceased to exist. The war went on and on and on… 

PS

1. It is often said, when explaining why Ukraine refused to accept the ‘Istanbul channel’, that Boris Johnson “advised” the Ukrainian president to act as he did. Historians will confirm whether Johnson spoke to Zelenskyy and anyone else, even in an “advisory” capacity. The crucial detail here is that, strictly speaking, the Ukrainian president can take advice from anyone – friend or adviser. No matter what the British prime minister may have said to him in their conversation, the announcement Johnson would make was either “we support the agreement” or “we do not support the agreement”. And the prime minister told President Zelenskyy that the UK would not support an agreement that involved Russia and that it did not want to, and would not, act as a guarantor alongside Russia, and that the US had taken a similar position. Against this backdrop, it would have taken a mammoth effort from Zelenskyy to uphold the agreement. But Zelenskyy quite rightly had little faith in Johnson’s reliability in the long term. Moreover, Zelenskyy lacked, and still lacks, leadership qualities and political professionalism, meaning the ability to maintain objectivity and focus as a situation unfolds and to make priority calls on matters from ethics to security – even under pressure and in extremis. Moreover, he had been preparing himself for a completely different scenario.

2. In the US in the 1990s, the rather hackneyed idea emerged of a “US-led victory by the West over the USSR in the Cold War, resulting in the collapse of the USSR”. It is hard to conceive of a more myopic view than this. We can talk about the historic defeat of orthodox Communism, but it is really quite disrespectful to cast the collapse of the USSR under the Belovezha Accords and Russia’s subsequent confirmation in the UN in place of the USSR, without any special treaties or supranational mechanisms in the former USSR, as someone else’s victory. The US and its partners at the time simply took the line “Yeltsin is good” – they had no interest in what the process looked like “on the inside”. But “on the inside”, Russia secured the formal right to claim the territory of the USSR (since Russia had taken its place), and the idea that Russia could exercise hegemony over the entire post-Soviet space found approval in the outside world, with the exception of the Baltic states. The West supported “reforms” in Russia which, leaving aside certain important, albeit cosmetic, minor aspects, when taken as a whole, set Russia on a course not towards becoming a rule-of-law state, but on the contrary to a state in total legal collapse. And while there was support for the Russian ‘elites’, no one was seriously going to work with the country, its people, its army, and so on, to build a common European and global future. Moreover, this attitude was directed at a country where the ideology of internationalism, left over from the USSR, was being inexorably torn to pieces by the lowest-of-the-low “gutter” nationalism, imperialism, and militarism, which had spread throughout the state bureaucracy and made it onto television. We are talking about a country where more than half of the military-industrial complex had survived, the bare bones of it having been assembled under Stalin, a country that was home to the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, which even now the whole world rightly feared.


P.P.S..

Some additional remarks. Since my main text about why the terrible tragedy of Russia’s war with Ukraine began was written under the assumption that it will be read by people who have read my essays before and are familiar with my style, as well as familiar with the context in terms of names and events of the already rather bygone past, I am supplementing it with a clarification of general ideas in places where there may be confusion.

1.  The war started because of a clash between Russian bureaucratic imperialism on one side and Ukrainian recklessness on the other. The latter is not a crime, unlike the former, but is a big mistake by politicians and the public.

 2.  The political philosophy of the USA, the EU and most of its countries and NATO in recent decades has undergone a destructive transformation towards bureaucratism, devoid of thought, reflection and responsibility. The attributes of this bureaucratism have become vanity, senseless aggressiveness and helplessness.

3 The bureaucratic signals that the West sent to the top levels of the Russian bureaucracy seemed convincing, weighty, and constructive to the West, while in Russia they were perceived as disrespectful, offensive, weak, and fussy, with the only option being a harsh response, so as not to give the impression of Russia being ‘humiliating’ in any way. Thus, Biden’s words to Putin that Ukraine would not be ready to join NATO for a long time, aimed at softening the sharp dialogue, were perceived in Moscow as deliberately ambiguous and thus ‘humiliating Russia,’ allowing it to create a military threat on Ukrainian territory in the future. The constant reminders to Putin, directly and indirectly, of the repression of Navalny, and the media presentation of the situation in Russia in such a way that anti-Putin activism in the streets has a significant political weight and is capable of actually opposing the authoritarian-bureaucratic regime and its decisions caused extreme irritation to the regime and motivated a powerful response; at the same time, those watching from the ‘outside,’ including Ukrainians, were greatly disoriented.

4. In the West, as the war progressed, the bureaucratic element in the assessments of what was happening and the instrumentalism of the decisions made only intensified, rather than making way for attempts at reflection. This ‘strategic bureaucratism’ tragically resulted in the monotonous repetition of the same thing, as if deliberately forgetting what was said yesterday and the absence of any plans for tomorrow that went beyond slogans, and the lack of a critical attitude to what actually happens on a daily basis in the war, where for two years everything is ‘almost the same’, only people are dying en masse. Just attributing the deaths to the fault of the aggressor solves little for these people and at times appears infantile in its constant fixation on who is to blame, optimism about future punishment of the transgressor and an unwillingness to reflexively ask the question ‘What is to be done?’

5. Also infantile is the constant substitution of a holistic approach by emotions concerning individual events on the ‘battlefield’; this is how the tasks of propaganda, social mobilization, and lobbying are solved, but it has very little effect on the situation as a whole. And the military-political situation has changed qualitatively little since the summer of 2022 (only there are fewer people…).

 6. One aspect of the ‘bureaucratic schizophrenia’, but an important and indicative one, is the frequent simultaneous reference to the weakness of Russia, whose army Ukraine will be able to throw back to the borders of 1991 or somewhere close, and the exorbitant frightening power of Russia, which can take over half of Europe. (This reminds me of the ‘dualism’ of Soviet Communist propaganda, which asserted both the weakness of the West in the face of the Soviet Union and the overwhelming all-pervasive nature of the Western threat.)

7. Finally: the nature of war is always execrable, base, inhuman. The heroism of men in defence of their homes and their nation at particular moments in history in no way invalidates this terrible fact. Prolonged war brings out the worst – an evil ever more deep-seated and long lasting, which subsequently becomes all but impossible to eradicate… The ennobling of war as such, no matter what its motivations, leads the world into an absolute dead end of evil. Motivation by legends, myths and historical memory is a false path and deserves nothing but condemnation, whoever resorts to it. And the absolutization of important legal norms of international law to the level of a moral imperative runs the risk of undermining these very principles.


[1] Timofei Sergeitsev is a political commentator and Russian propagandist whose well known article, ‘What Russia Should Do with Ukraine,’ published by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, called for ‘the full destruction of Ukraine as a state, as well as the full destruction of the Ukrainian national identity in accordance with Russia’s aim to accomplish the “denazification” of the latter’ [Wikipedia]


Translated by Melanie Moore and Lindsay Munford