INTERVIEW// Vladimir Socor, foreign policy analyst, Jamestown Foundation: „Russia will not invade Ukraine, and if it does make a minor incursion, that will aim at Ukraine’s domestic policy”

Mădălin Necșuțu
2022-02-11 08:15:00

I n an interview with the political expert on East Europe, Vladimir Socor, we have tried to decipher Russia’s intentions and interests in relation to Ukraine and the extended negotiations with the West. Vladimir Socor argues we can no longer talk today about spheres of influence in Europe like in the Cold War, because Russia is much more economically connected to Europe that it is trying to influence politically through proxy politicians, who, in one way or another, agree with its ideas. We are inviting you to read the interview with Vladimir Socor below:

- Should the Moldovan authorities be concerned about the current volatile security situation on the Ukrainian border, where Russia has massed important military forces? 

- The Moldovan authorities, of course, need to be concerned as well as all European states, but it is not directly endangered by what is happening in Ukraine. The Republic of Moldova is in a safe corner. As long as Ukraine remains stable and reliable, the Republic of Moldova will be safe from Russia.

- How do you see the US-Russia negotiations in recent weeks and how do you assess the Russian demands from the West? Are they acceptable to some degree or is Russia playing bluff?

First of all, I think these negotiations shouldn’t have taken place. I believe the United States should have rejected the negotiations with Moscow under the conditions defined by Russia itself. The demands published by Russia on December 17th, the two draft treaty and agreement respectively, are not only unacceptable content-wise, but are also unacceptable in form. They are deliberately insulting and the US should have rejected any negotiations on these ‘drafts’ containing such vocabulary.

- Can we still talk today about spheres of influence like during the Cold War or the states’ mentalities have changed after the fall of the USSR?

- One can no longer speak of spheres of influence in the same way as one spoke after World War II, between 1945-1990. The situation has changed radically. The international system has changed. Since the end of World War II, the Central and Eastern European states, which had been sacrificed to Russia, had already been under Russian occupation when the United States and Great Britain agreed to divide their spheres of influence. Therefore, those countries could only be recovered from Soviet rule by war. Today’s situation is completely different. The countries Russia wants to return to its sphere of influence are part of NATO. This is a fundamental difference. Why is then Russia hoping to return its hegemon position in this part of Europe and why does it want to establish a zone of influence?

The answer is the following: Russia does not want a sphere of influence like the one the Soviet Union had in the 1945-1991 period. That sphere of influence was more or less homogeneous. The countries in this region were more or less, to varying degrees, subordinate to the Soviet Union. They all had communist parties in power so the ideology was homogeneous throughout the area. Currently, Russia wants to establish a sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe with different levels of influence. In the case of Ukraine, Russia simply wants to absorb Ukraine in a neo-imperial construction. In the case of the countries west of Ukraine - we are referring here to the Baltic states, Poland and Romania - Russia wants these countries to be virtually neutralized by the withdrawal of NATO troops. Russia’s basic requirement is that NATO troops withdraw from the geographical lines before 1997.

Thus, the countries mentioned above would become unprotected countries. Even if they didn’t have the neutrality status, they would be a kind of buffer zone between Russia and what would remain of NATO. So, there are already two different levels of Russian influence - in Ukraine we talked about absorption, while in the area between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea we could talk about Russian domination over unprotected countries. Another difference is that between 1945 and 1990, there was a clear demarcation line, the so-called Iron Curtain, which in the last period of the Cold War was no longer impenetrable.

There was though a clear demarcation line - from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Now, such a clear demarcation line no longer exists, because Russia is present in many ways in Western Europe. Between 1945 and 1990, Russia did not penetrate Western Europe, and the demarcation line worked. Now it no longer exists, because Russia is very actively present in the West, while the West is not present in Russia. Russia has all kinds of allies in the West, most of them non-ideological. We are talking about allies in business, fellow travellers among political parties, allies in banking and financial circles. Much of the wealth generated by the Russian economy is stored in the West and plays, among other things, the role of corrupting Western elites. Major social groups in Western Europe have become co-interested in cooperating with Russia. All these forms of Russian presence did not exist during the Cold War. It would be an illusion for anyone to imagine that we can draw a firm line that sacrifices Central and Eastern Europe, but saves us Westerners from Russian domination. No, this is no longer possible.

- What are the risks for Moldova if Russia invades Ukraine? How exposed is it given that it has Russian troops on its territory in the Transnistrian region?

- Here it depends on how we define a Russian invasion of Ukraine. If by invasion we mean a massive entry and occupation of a large territory of Ukraine - and such a scenario does exist - there would be two possible definitions. However, I do not believe in this scenario, although there is a lot of discussion in Washington, where there is a real hysteria regarding such a scenario. I don’t believe in it. I ventured to predict that Russia would not invade Ukraine. I have been saying this since the crisis began in October, that Russia will not invade Ukraine in this way. Although unlikely, I don’t rule out another type of Russian attack on Ukraine. A kind of ‘territory bite’. For example, Russia could push the Donbas demarcation line further inside Ukraine a few kilometres. Or it could advance from Azov to Mariupol for a distance of 30 kilometres and thus directly threaten Mariupol, maybe even conquer it. These would be the kind of incursions. If we were to quote US President Joe Biden, they would be ‘minor’. I don’t rule them out, but they seem unlikely. Why am I ruling out an invasion and finding a minor raid unlikely? Because Russia would lose much more than it would gain through such acts. First of all, negotiations between the West and Russia on transforming European security would end. Russia has now a unique opportunity with the Biden administration to seriously try to transform the European security system, taking advantage of the weaknesses and incompetence of the Biden administration. It is a unique situation that I think Russia is aware of, and I think that explains the moment chosen by Russia for this politico-diplomatic offensive with military support. Russia’s long-awaited negotiations, from which Moscow hopes to gain much, even some historic gains, would stop. So, Russia would lose a lot. Second, the United States would certainly tighten Western economic sanctions against Russia. I have no doubt that these sanctions would be tightened. In Ukraine, Russia would defeat the Ukrainian army in a relatively short time, but in the long run it would face a national guerrilla resistance that would make the Russians “bleed”. If the conventional military victory against the Ukrainian army was a short stage, then the guerrilla resistance would be a long stage that would cost financially, and the human losses would be very big for Russia. If prolonged, this would severely undermine Putin’s internal position, because it would no longer be a small victorious war, it would be a long guerrilla war from which Russia will suffer. For all these reasons, I believe, Russia will not invade Ukraine, and if it does make a minor incursion, that will aim at Ukraine’s domestic policy. Namely to provoke indignation and revolt against the Zelensky administration over the loss by Ukraine of a small part of the territory again.

- How prepared is it today the Republic of Moldova in terms of human and military resources to cope with the security of the country?

- The Republic of Moldova has virtually no army. It is much more inferior even to the Transnistrian forces. There, in the separatist region, there aren’t only Russian troops, but also Transnistrian troops of about one division that are much better trained compared to the Moldovan forces. So, there is no security solution for the Republic of Moldova. This is a situation that has lasted for 30 years.

There is no security solution in case of a Russian attack. Fortunately, such a Russian attack is ruled out. I’m ruling it out. However, I’m not ruling out the possibility of a Russian amphibious landing, either with boats or with helicopters in Crimea, or somewhere in the Odessa region. This would be the scenario I was talking about earlier, when the Russians would “bite” a piece of Ukrainian territory. Even in this scenario, the Russians would certainly not cross the Dniester River on the right bank. Maybe they would make the connection with Transnistria, but they would not cross the Dniester on the right bank, I am sure about this. We can rule out the idea that the Russians are crossing the Dniester. However, this does not mean that there is no need to prepare a security solution for the Republic of Moldova to deal with the hypotheses. And this solution does not yet exist.

- Finally, could you help us please to decipher this pressure and insistence of both Moscow and Tiraspol on the Transnistrian file in the last month? Why are these negotiation proposals coming now, after Tiraspol has refused any dialogue for about two years? Why now?

- The negotiations have stalled due to political instability in Moldova. Now that a government has come promising to be stable, it will probably take a full legislature and a full fouryear presidential term. The Russians believe that political stability has returned to the Republic of Moldova, so negotiations on the Transnistrian dossier can be resumed. There are many OSCE diplomats who are doing harm to the Republic of Moldova and who are insisting, for bureaucratic and career reasons, to patronize another round of negotiations so that there is a negotiation process. They have to justify their existence. The Russians connect the issue with the two special statutes they want. A special status for Donbas, according to the Minsk documents, and a special status for Transnistria.

- So, do you see a correlation between the two files that Russia would try to make?

- Yes, Moscow is connecting these two files. They are aware that having special status on one of these issues creates implicit pressure and thus a model emerges to move forward with the other special status. OSCE diplomats do not think about this, they have their own narrow departmental and institutional considerations. The Presidency and the Government of the Republic of Moldova have stated the Transnistrian issue cannot be resolved in the near future and that Moldova should focus on domestic reforms. I completely agree with this position. I applauded this position when it came from the Chisinau authorities.

Indeed, the Republic of Moldova is not ready to reintegrate Transnistria in the coming years, because Moldova does not have the necessary institutions to achieve this goal. First of all, there is no rule of law in the Republic of Moldova. Return of Transnistria to the Republic of Moldova, without rule of law and necessary institutions in place, would be very dangerous. Reintegration under these conditions would only add to the disorganization of the Moldovan state, not to mention the fact that it would completely change the balance of political forces by returning the Transnistrian electorate to the electoral field of the Republic of Moldova. Chisinau needs to focus on domestic reforms and the rule of law. Only then could it start thinking about how to reintegrate Transnistria, but in no case for a special status. This special status is a Russian invention. The Republic of Moldova has accepted this notion for almost 30 years due to its weakness and inconsistency.

The special status is an illegitimate Russian notion. Nothing obliges the Republic of Moldova to accept such a solution. It is inconsistent with international law and the Moldovan Constitution. I’ve noticed that the notion of special status has disappeared from the vocabulary of the Moldovan government. The government continues to talk, rightly, about the withdrawal of Russian troops, about human rights in Transnistria, democracy, about the interests of the people on both banks of the Dniester, but the notion of special status has disappeared from the government’s discourse. I’ve noticed the same thing in the discourse of the Romanian government. And I’ve mentioned above that I’m welcoming these developments.

- Thank you!


Mădălin Necșuțu
2022-02-11 08:15:00