"We greatly underestimated Ukrainian resolve and unity." Francis Fukuyama In Dialogue With Valerii Pekar
In order to comprehend the events of recent days, PEN Ukraine has launched a series of conversations entitled #DialoguesOnWar.
On June 3, Francis Fukuyama, political scientist, political economist, and writer, held a conversation with Valerii Pekar, author, lecturer, president and co-owner of Euroindex.
This is a transcription of key moments from their conversation. You can check out the recorded conversation here.
Francis Fukuyama: I must say that I and almost everybody in the United States feels a great deal of awe and respect for the heroic resistance that Ukraine has put up against this Russian aggression. And I, personally, have been trying to do whatever I can to support Ukraine, as have many of my colleagues at Stanford and, more broadly, in the United States. We overestimated Russian power and we greatly underestimated Ukrainian resolve and unity. I do want to talk about the future of American and European support for Ukraine. But I think before we get into that, I would like to ask Valerii some questions about the current situation. I have known Valerii because he participated in the leadership academy training that we did in Ukraine a few years ago. So, Valerii, perhaps you could tell us about the general situation and perceptions from the Ukrainian side about how the war is going, and then, obviously, you could focus on some economic consequences and how you see Ukraine’s future in that regard?
Valerii Pekar: Thank you very much, professor. We in Ukraine appreciate the support from the American people and the American government for our army and our nation during this war. A friend in need is a friend indeed. I would also like to express my gratitude to all the intellectuals in the US and around the world who support Ukraine by making an effort to explore the situation and understand what is going on.
From a purely military point of view, we are now in the third stage of the war. The first stage was a rapid maneuver war aimed to capture Ukrainian cities and force the Ukrainian government to surrender. It failed; it was impossible. Then Russian forces entered the second stage, which was a scorched-earth strategy already used in Syria and Chechnya, to make as much damage as possible to Ukrainian civilians and Ukrainian civilian infrastructure to convince the leadership to surrender. This strategy also failed.
And now the third phase of the war is taking place. It is a purely positional war, much more similar to World War II. Russian forces have no resources to wage this war on the long frontline; they are concentrated on one territory in Eastern Ukraine and they are trying to defeat the Ukrainian army there.
We are now at an extremely interesting point in this war where it is still possible for Ukraine to win but Russia has already lost. Indeed, the end of the war, which will become a total loss for everyone, is still possible, for instance, if the Russian leadership uses nuclear weapons. But there is no scenario in which Russia wins. It has already lost and everyone should accept this fact. Now we need to end this war with a victory for Ukraine, which will guarantee European and global security, making sure that the next war does not come to Europe anymore.
From an economic point of view, we have a giant decline. Practically half of the Ukrainian economy has stopped. Now we are seeing a certain revival in the territories that are free, like Kyiv and its surrounding areas. Small and medium-sized businesses are more flexible. They are trying to relaunch or relocate to Western Ukraine. However, the whole country is under missile attacks, and some 20 percent of the Ukrainian territory is still occupied by the Russian forces.
Francis Fukuyama: So, maybe, you could say something about the situation in the Black Sea? That’s an area that has now finally been getting some more attention. As everyone knows, Ukraine is a really major agricultural exporter, basically got a whole year's worth of grain that’s just sitting in silos because of the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. There’s been increasing attention paid to this. A delegation of African leaders just went to talk to Putin about opening up some of those ports. Because, in addition to cutting off a major source of export earnings for Ukraine, this is causing a major food crisis in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and many other parts of the world. What is the situation there and do you see any prospects for progress in this respect?
Valerii Pekar: Indeed, sea blockade is one of Putin's major weapons because two major sectors of Ukrainian export – agriculture and metallurgy – are transported by sea. There will be no world metal crisis, but there surely is a threat of a food crisis. Surprisingly, some countries which could be affected by it are still voting for Russia in various UN arenas. This is a threat not only for the Middle East but for Europe as well. A food crisis in the Middle East and Africa will create another refugee crisis in Europe and will undermine European unity and European strength. This is a problem of a global scale. What are the options? Several things can be done in this case. Ukraine cannot remove this blockade by itself because it has a rather small fleet. To provide food to the countries in need, we need an international coalition. Who can do it? Any responsible leader, either the EU or China or it could be a Turkish initiative. As we see now, Turkey has a very ambivalent position and is blocking international efforts to remove the blockade. Who will become this responsible leader? It is still an open question.
Francis Fukuyama: I think that this is a really complicated diplomatic effort. You could imagine the UN effort to actually open up the Black Sea because of the food crisis. You are talking about protecting the innocent passage of commercial ships in international waters because once you get outside of Ukrainian territorial waters, these are international waters. It seems to me that Turkey really should have an interest in being seen as a leader in trying to resolve this food crisis, not necessarily because it is sided with Ukraine or Russia in the war, but simply because this is a global interest that could be served by it. I’m not quite sure why this effort has not been more successful. I think that the United States at some point had some worries about escalation if NATO were seen as trying to break this blockade. I think this is an overstated fear. In general, although we do have to worry about Russian escalation, especially toward the use of nuclear weapons, that, by and large, is not very likely to happen. If the Russians were to escalate, for example, by trying to sink commercial shipping coming out of Ukraine or attacking boats escorting this kind of shipping, it would look very bad for them politically. I guess the one thing that I worry about is whether the narrative might change. At this point, people tend to blame Russia for the food crisis more than Ukraine. But if the war bogs down in their increasing calls for a negotiated settlement, that narrative may change and people will start blaming Ukraine, saying ‘they need to settle, they need to make territorial concessions’ in order to end the war and then to open up the possibility of exporting food. It’s very important to control the narrative to make sure that the blame for this crisis lies on the party that really is responsible, and that is Russia and not Ukraine.
Valerii Pekar: Indeed, it is not purely NATO’s job to remove the blockade. And I understand the NATO leaders who are afraid of escalation from the Russian side. We also should not forget about another huge problem for the international community which is the demining of the Black Sea. The room for responsible leadership to resolve these exists for every country, not only for NATO members.
Addressing your question about nuclear weapons, there are two opposite views in the West and in Ukraine concerning the possibility of a nuclear attack. Many Western observers think that Putin will use nuclear weapons when he feels weak, like a rat in the corner, as an ultimate weapon. This is not true. We in Ukraine believe in the opposite scenario. We know Russia and Russian leadership quite well, so we understand that Putin will use nuclear weapons from the point of strength, not weakness. If he feels strong enough, if he feels there will be no response apart from the diplomatic talks, if he feels that the surrounding Russian elite supports him and is consolidated around him, in this case, he will do it.
Also I would like to comment on the narrative of ‘saving face’. Putin controls all the media in his country. People there are used to blindly believing Russian propaganda. They completely lost critical thinking. When George Orwell wrote his dystopia, he did not expect that someone would take his book and use it as a manual. You are absolutely right in saying that we should control the narrative.
Francis Fukuyama: I agree with you on escalation fears. I don't think that anyone should not worry about the escalation. This conflict is different from really all of the prior post-Cold War conflicts in that it does involve a country that has a very large nuclear arsenal. So I don’t think we should simply discount that. But I do think that if you look at the operational consequences of the Russians actually using a nuclear weapon, it does not buy them that much military advantage and it will trigger, almost certainly, a NATO response. NATO does not have to reply symmetrically. If Russians use a tactical nuclear weapon, NATO does not have to also use a tactical nuclear weapon; there are many conventional responses. So, for example, NATO has been reluctant to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine precisely for fear of this kind of escalation. But if it happens, then a no-fly zone with direct NATO involvement, attacking Russian aircrafts and air defense systems, is on the table. And I think, as the Russians make these calculations, they see that they actually do not buy themselves any particular advantage by moving to this kind of escalation. And then, furthermore, we just have not seen any intelligence information about the Russians preparing to use nuclear weapons. They would have to get ready in a lot of different ways and they simply have not moved in that direction. I must say, if you watch Moscow television, they have been completely irresponsible in very casually talking about nuclear attacks on Europe, hitting Berlin and Paris with nuclear weapons as if this is something that is a real option for any responsible leader. I don’t know why they think it is advantageous to tell their people that they have this kind of option, but it is highly irresponsible.
I would like to say a little bit about the external conditions and external reactions to the war. I think that everybody in the first month or two of the war was extremely surprised and gratified by the unity that was expressed in NATO, particularly on the part of the Germans, who under chancellor Scholz gave up four years of Ostpolitik, and said they are going to double the size of their defense budget, although it happened very slowly. They have begun to permit the shipment of weapons to Ukraine.
But I do think we are in a rather perilous moment in that alliance unity. As long as Ukraine seems to be making military advances on the ground, first in the area around Kyiv, where they drove Russians out of their positions and the whole Russian effort to take the capital and bring about the collapse of the regime failed quite miserably, and then went on to push the Russians back from the area around Kharkiv and to secure that city. I think that there was a hope that this momentum would be kept up. But now that the war has moved to this very narrow salient around Severodonetsk where the progress has been slow but fairly steady on the Russian side, all of a sudden, you are now seeing cracks in the alliance’s attitude towards the war. Just in the past couple of weeks, you have Henry Kissinger saying there ought to be a negotiated settlement with Ukrainian concessions and The Times published an editorial making a similar kind of argument. You had the leaders of France and Germany talking to Vladimir Putin, who, I agree, is really a war criminal, about the possibility of reopening grain exports and alike. And I think that the real danger is that the alliance solidarity, that has been so remarkable up to this point, is going to decline, as the war grinds on and as it doesn’t look like there’s a lot of momentum towards Ukraine actually driving Russia out of the south. That is why I think that the new offensive that the Ukrainian military has begun to try to liberate Kherson and break that land bridge to Crimea is really critical. From the military standpoint, it makes sense not to make the last stand in Severodonetsk and try to make new gains further south instead. But I do worry about the unity of the alliance if there isn’t a counteroffensive.
The next few weeks are going to be really critical because both sides have suffered pretty terrible losses. In that respect, I think there is some room for optimism because Russia seems to be running out of everything. They are running out of men. They simply don’t have the forces. They have decided not to go for a general mobilization and they have lost a terrible number of people, they have also had tremendous equipment losses. They are having to bring these old T-62s out of storage because so many of their modern tanks have been destroyed. Whereas Ukraine is now getting supplies from the United States and other NATO allies, including much longer missile systems and anti-ship missiles. I hope that the Ukrainian forces can train on this equipment rapidly, learn to use it, incorporate it into their existing inventories, and then use it to break the Russian hold in the south. I would say that the real diplomatic future is going to depend on the degree to which Ukraine can establish some forward momentum on the ground. But I wonder if you agree with that assessment.
Valerii Pekar: Yes, sir. The major diplomatic arena is now on the battlefield around Severodonetsk, where diplomatic affairs are being taken care of by the Ukrainian army. That means that only their success creates room for diplomacy. As far as we know, Putin at the moment is not ready for any negotiations. He will be only if his army suffers losses. What I am afraid of, however, is something we can call ‘Ukraine fatigue’. It looks like the war is not on the front pages of newspapers and not on major news programs anymore.
Regarding international politics, we see absolutely tectonic changes happening in weeks which we believed would take decades to happen. I am talking about changes in the policy of Germany or the fantastic unity of NATO and the EU. The world has changed dramatically.
Now we should think about the future, about the lessons this war has taught us. For example, what changes need to be made in the world, particularly in the military policies of different nations and international organizations, to ensure global security. In your opinion, what are the lessons the international community should learn?
Francis Fukuyama: Well, I have just written a new book called Liberalism and its Discontents which is an effort to explain what liberalism is and why it still remains the most important ideology or political structure that needs to be defended. Liberalism is a doctrine that says that all human beings are basically morally equal and that they have rights: rights to speech, to belief, to association. That they should be free to make decisions in their lives, but this should be protected by the rule of law in which the powers of governments are limited. This is really what is at stake in this war. In 2019, Putin gave a very famous interview to the Financial Times, in which he said that liberalism is an obsolete doctrine. And in this he has been supported by many populist leaders around the world, people like Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour in France, Victor Orban in Hungary, and Donald Trump in the US, who has never been able to say a negative thing about him. I think this is the largest stake that we are fighting over. I think in some respects it has been a good thing that people can see what the alternative to liberalism is – Putin is the alternative. I think the outcome of this war in Ukraine is going to have a major impact on the rest of the world one way or the other. If Putin succeeds in grabbing a major part of Ukraine and holding on to it, he’s going to be able to say ‘forget about the earlier objectives of overthrowing the regime altogether, we’ve managed to secure Donbas and we’re able to choke Ukraine economically’, and he’ll be able to portray that as a kind of victory and that will vindicate a lot of populists that supported him, despite all of the genuine genocide and human rights violations and deporting of populations that have occurred under Putin’s occupation. I am afraid that those populists will regain some traction. So, that’s why I think that the war has a much larger implication for the global liberal order. That’s why other liberal democracies around the world must continue to give Ukraine the maximum amount of support that they can.
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