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"I do think Ukraine needs significant assistance in rebuilding itself after the civil war"

Interview with Vladimir Orlov

There is currently a decrease in the cease-fire violations in Eastern Ukraine. Do you think this situation is sustainable and what would be the necessary conditions for the EU to lift sanctions on Russia?

The current situation can be sustainable, but so far it is very delicate to speak about the ending of the civil war in Ukraine. A few more steps are needed both from the Ukrainian leadership but also from Europe to end the civil war. In my view, the key priority is decentralisation in Ukraine; the initial, at list declaratory steps, have been done. But this process is not completed, and more needs to be done to be able to speak with more certainty about the ending of civil war in Ukraine.

As far as I see the sanctions process in different parts of the world, it is sometimes easy to jump in with starting sanctions, but always difficult for bureaucratic and political reasons to stop the sanctions and come back to the normal situation. In fact, sanctions as I and many other European analysts see it, damage Europe no less and maybe even more than Russia, and do not help to solve any problems. They just distance Europe and Russia even more.

If I were deciding on the sanctions in Brussels, I would immediately stop the sanctions process against Russia. I would do this not just in the interest of good progress in Eastern Ukraine and stopping the military phase of the conflict, but I would stop them because for the EU it was a wrong step. But I am not in Brussels, so my estimate is that it will be quite a long process that Russia will not be in a position to influence because it is up to the EU to do their own thinking, re-thinking, and homework.

What would be an acceptable solution of the Ukrainian crisis for Russia?

A sustainable solution for Russia would begin with decentralisation, which would respect the strong autonomy of the areas of Eastern Ukraine that are now part of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People Republics, of course with the understanding that they remain an integral part of Ukraine.

Second is what I call the Finlandisation of Ukraine. This term could be understood differently, but it does not necessarily mean a bad experience, it may be very positive in a security and economic sense. My reading of Finlandisation is that Ukraine should not be part of any military alliance and it should be legally binding. The Ukrainian people should also be free to decide which union or formation to join. I am personally sceptical, however, about whether the EU is currently so interested in accepting Ukraine as a member. But I do think Ukraine needs significant assistance in rebuilding itself after the civil war. Russia should not be against a joint effort between the EU and a Eurasian Union on the restoration of Ukraine. In addition, the issue of any attempts to blockade Crimea would certainly not be acceptable.

There are large numbers of migrants arriving in Europe, specifically from Syria. The war in Syria has lasted for almost 5 years, why do you think the people are fleeing the country in such large numbers only now?

People are fleeing largely from Syria, but also from other countries like Pakistan for instance. Some of them are in poverty, devastated by war and they see the risk of escalation of the civil war. Others are in much better economic shape and they find that it is a time when Europe is likely to accept them. The problem is that Europe was completely unprepared for the waves of migrants, but there was nothing unexpected. There were previous signals coming from Africa, and of course the routes through Turkey and Southern Europe have been attractive and proved to be workable before for refugees, as well as for those who financially gain from passing refugees through other territories.

The question is not whether Europe can accept them, but how it can assimilate these very different groups of people. Everyone is now wondering whether this wave is the final one, or whether one should expect more? Here I do not know the answer, but an obvious response would be that everybody in Europe and Russia is interested in ending of the civil war in Syria, because people are suffering. It looks like an endless civil war in a major country of the Middle East with great history, mix of religions, and important potential both economically and strategically.

However, there are other actors who are not interested in ending the war because they pre-paid those who are not winning so far. Some other money intended for the military opposition and Bashar al-Assad has possibly ended up in the hands of the terrorist groups like ISIS. In my view, it is in the common interest of Russia and Europe, as well the United States and Middle Eastern players to reduce the violence in Syria, addressing primarily the expanding terrorist threat and later on addressing the civil war itself.

What is Russia’s motivation to increase its military presence in Syria?

Russia realises that the terrorist threat coming from ISIS is a clear danger to the country and its allies from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russian allies in Central Asia may be particularly vulnerable to the growing ISIS threat, especially as ISIS expands its influence beyond Iraq and Syria borders. No less significant is the threat to the Northern Caucasus, which is mostly peaceful now, but definitely a very fragile region. For this reason, Russia has decided to act, and if needed it will act independently. Of course, this is in cooperation and in support of the recognised government in Syria, which for Russia is Bashar al-Assad’s government, who has proven to be a strong ruler with an efficient army. In this sense, Russia’s assessment is that we can help Bashar al-Assad with weaponry and instructors to counter radical Islamism and terrorism in Syria. If others would like to cooperate with us on addressing this particular threat from ISIS, rather than addressing Bashar al-Assad’s removal as the ultimate goal, this can be on the table for discussions with such players as Turkey, the United States and the EU.