"The Russian intentions towards Ukraine were established long before these events"

12 May 2020

In his latest book "Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War ", political scientist Paul D’Anieri examines why the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has escalated. With ZOiS, he speaks about the development of the conflict, a point of no return and decision-making powers of governments.

Paul D'Anieri

What aspects of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict are you analysing in the book, which so far have been overlooked by academic research?

On the one hand, the book starts with the analysis of events at the end of the Cold War and not only at recent events, such as the expansion of NATO or the recognition of Kosovo. I would like to show that Russian intentions towards Ukraine were established long before these events. On the other hand, I am approaching the topic, including international conflict research, which is neglected by most publications on the Ukraine conflict. The security dilemma is an important factor. This theory comes from international conflict research and describes a country's challenge of ensuring its own security without damaging the security perception of other countries.

The second major aspect that the book focuses on is the role of democracy and its spread. I argue that the geopolitical spread of democracy in Europe has continuously changed the political landscape, which the Russian side perceived as a threat. The fact that the general spread of democratic conditions has already put Russia under pressure has been widely overlooked.

The third major pillar is the impact of domestic politics. I would like to emphasise that there were domestic political reasons in all participating countries as to why the acceleration of the conflict was more appropriate than taking steps that would have de-escalated the conflict.

The book distances itself from the “battle of blame“.  Could you elaborate on that?

Much of the literature deals with the question of guilt, especially the publications that came out in the first years after the conflict. Often, Russia is either described as an aggressor or a victim of western aggression. Regardless of the variant chosen, the question of guilt leads to a one-dimensional explanation of the conflict. This assumption also fits the assumption that the actors in the conflict could have had an easy way to behave differently than they did and this despite the fact that the history and literature of international relations show us that the sovereign ability of national rulers to make decisions is usually very limited. They cannot solve the security dilemma on their own. It is beyond their control. In summary, I would like to emphasise that the reasons for the Ukraine conflict lie deeper than blaming individual rulers.

Regarding the political and sociological developments which led up to the war, could you identify a “point of no return”?

The short answer is no, but let me explain it more specifically: until Putin sent his armed forces to the Crimea and then to Eastern Ukraine, there was no point of no return. He could have reacted to what happened in Kyiv in 2014 in the same way he reacted to the Orange Revolution in 2004. Namely, by saying: "We lost a battle, but continue the fight". Without the metaphor: we will continue to expand our influence in and on Ukraine. After the Orange Revolution, Russia was very successful with it. In this sense, the escalation of the conflict was not inevitable. Even the rebellion in eastern Ukraine could have been put down by the Ukrainian army in the summer of 2014, despite the support of the Russian secret service. That could have ended the conflict if Putin had not sent out his army in July 2014.

In your book, you recall the 1991 referendum about the independence of Ukraine and stress that 92.3 per cent voted in favour of independence, even including the regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, where 83.9 per cent voted for independence. Can you explain the shift of opinion that happened in these regions?

I would not say with any certainty that there was a change of mood. It is true that in 1991 over 80 per cent of the people in Donetsk and Luhansk voted for Ukraine's independence. Incidentally, also over 50 per cent in the Crimea. The problem is that we don't get any really reliable data from these regions these days. I believe that if we had this data, it would indeed express the desire for an independent Ukraine among the people of these regions, too. However, an independent Ukraine that maintains close cultural and economic ties to Russia. This is a point that has always been misunderstood: the assumed desire to isolate oneself and to belong to Russia is not identical to the more or less widespread desire to maintain closer economic links with Russia.

In the conclusion of the book, you use the phrase „from cold war to cold war“.  Staying within that terminology, how much of a proxy war is the Russian-Ukrainian war?

The war in eastern Ukraine can certainly be described as a proxy war. In a way, this war goes beyond a common proxy war, considering Russia's significant military presence in Ukraine. I don't think the Luhansk or Donetsk rebels would have been successful without the military and economic support from Russia.


Paul D’Anieri is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. He specialised in international relations in the former Soviet Union with a focus on Ukraine and Russia.

Paul D’Anieri (2019): Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War, Camebridge University Press.