Moscow's enemy is the West

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Russian President Putin's accusations against the West reinforce the Kremlin's basic narrative that Russia is the victim of a major conspiracy, Romanian historian Armand Gosu told DW.

Stop Putin – Stop War: Rally on the market square in Leipzig (May 1, 2022)

DW: Russian President Vladimir Putin used the traditional military parade in Moscow on Victory Day, May 9, to accuse the West of a planned invasion “of Russia”, meaning Crimea and elsewhere. Moscow's military “special operation” is therefore unavoidable in order to nip the alleged aggression in the bud. What does this mean for the war in Ukraine?

Armand Gosu: I think we have witnessed a recalibration of Putin's discourse. Terms that were often used in the past, such as “denazification” or “gangs of drug addicts,” seem to be disappearing. The emphasis now is on the inevitability of war. This means that there was no alternative to war and that Putin only did what he was obliged to do. And that was fundamentally correct.

This attitude should not surprise us, it is specific to Soviet-type communist bureaucracies and to the military circles from which Putin comes. It's a common type of bureaucratic culture. I wouldn't insist on explaining this phenomenon, because in other countries – in Romania, for example – the dominant culture in government, ministries and secret services is, if not the same, at least very similar. The boss is always right, there is no alternative to what a president or a minister says. The state institutions of power cannot do anything wrong. There is no independent, real, authentic expertise in such cultures.

Romanian historian Armand Gosu

Culturally poor and intellectually humble, but often boasting PhDs, the militarized bureaucracy will not accept areas not controlled by the foreign affairs, defense and security intelligence agencies. The roots of this culture are slightly older than the Bolshevik regime. They lead into the Russian Empire – a state built by a militarized bureaucracy and organized by hierarchy. The most important institution was that of the superior, the nachalnik. It is a culture specific to rural societies that have not been able to modernize or that have simply rejected Western culture.

In a previous interview you said that this conflict is resolved on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table. Why not diplomatically?

Because Russia still believes it can win this war. And it does everything it can to win. That is, the Russian army creates smaller and larger “pincers” with which it tries to grab the Ukrainian army. This is taught in the military academies in Moscow, modeled on Soviet military tactics in World War II. That's what Russia did in August 2014 in the battle for Ilovaisk. This was followed by the first Minsk agreement (for a ceasefire and a peaceful solution to the conflict – editor's note). Then Russia repeated its actions in February 2015 in Debaltsevo – and Minsk 2 came (a supplementary package of measures to implement the first agreement – editor's note).

After the failure of the grand plan to bring all of Ukraine to its knees with a blitzkrieg, but also the plan to encircle the two most important cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, the Russian army is concentrating on the Donbass. There they are trying to use these “pincers” to surround large Ukrainian units and thereby force the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj into a ceasefire and political concessions. All Putin could get now is a ceasefire, not a Minsk 3, but a simple ceasefire. This would allow him to keep the occupied territories and give him the respite needed to renew his military capacities and resume the offensive against Ukraine.

Destroyed Russian tank in the Kyiv region

Why did the Russian blitzkrieg fail?

Putin's problem is that after eight years of fighting in Donbass, the Ukrainians have built a well-prepared, modern army and difficult-to-conquer defense infrastructure in Donetsk and Luhansk. After weeks of a desperate offensive, the Russians have barely advanced a few miles. In order to supplement the armed forces, a secret mobilization campaign was launched in Russia – or rather, discreetly, so as not to frighten the population. However, the soldiers will soon realize that they do not have enough weapons and ammunition. And the defense industry has no way of getting electronic components because of the sanctions.

Almost desperately, Putin wanted a win, a little “pincers” to capture a few hundred, maybe thousands, of Ukrainian soldiers in hopes of forcing a ceasefire. The Ukrainians, in turn, are in a race against time, hoping to get American weapons faster to use in operations in Donbass, where the war is being waged with unprecedented intensity. And where the loss of human life and fighting technique is enormous.

If, as you say, the war will be decided on the battlefield, how must Ukraine define a military victory? Is it enough to take back the territories occupied and annexed by Russia?

Both the President of Ukraine and his Foreign Minister have repeatedly stated that the goal is to liberate the territory from Russian occupation, i.e. to return to the legal ones Borders of the country before the annexation of Crimea and the proclamation of the separatist people's republics in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers his daily address to his people (05/17/2022)

Russia, in turn, wants to annex Cherson, Melitopol, Mariupol and as much of the Donbass as possible, i.e. the areas still controlled by the Russian army. Once Russia annexes these areas and Ukraine intensifies the counter-offensive to liberate them, there is a risk that Putin will see this as an attack on Russia, order a general mobilization and invoke the article in the Russian security strategy that says that in view of existential threats with nuclear weapons.

What do Putin's allegations say about Russia's relations with the West? And what else should the West do to respond to Moscow's hostility?

The accusations against the West only reinforce the Kremlin's basic narrative that the West was to blame for the outbreak of the war, that Putin had no choice, that Russia was the victim of a major American conspiracy. Or more precisely, a conspiracy of the Anglo-Saxons – that's the new buzzword in Moscow. They ask what the West can do about it. The West must help Ukraine defend itself. That means financial aid, offensive weapons, moral support from public opinion, political support. The West is unaware of the Russian threat. The year 1814, when Russian soldiers occupied Paris, is far away. Western Europe has a short memory, is cynical and mercantile.

Central and Eastern Europe have had great historic fortunes with the Anglo-Saxon world, with the USA, Canada and the UK. A key role is  Poland, the repository of the historical memory of Central and Eastern Europe – for centuries the most important political-military power in the region. Poland will be the leader of the Slavic nations that will have integrated into the Euro-Atlantic world in a few decades. There will be a Slavic bloc consisting of Ukraine, Belarus – Putin will drag Lukashenko with him -, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 9, 2022 in Moscow

With the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, the eastern flank of the alliance towards the north, towards the Baltic States, will be decisively strengthened, thus continuing the process of strengthening the alliance that began at the NATO summit in Warsaw in June 2016. This Slavic bloc with its 100 million inhabitants will change the balance of power in the western camp, the influence of France and Germany will shrink and they will become less and less important in terms of security. Poland and Ukraine are already America's most important allies and partners in Europe – and will remain so for many years to come. This applies even if Ukraine does not become a NATO member. Confidence in NATO's ability to respond to Russian threats will continue to dwindle with members like Viktor Orban's Hungary anyway.

What does this mean for countries like Moldova and Romania, a NATO member the southeastern flank of the Alliance?

All of Eastern Europe is being transformed by this war. So the destiny of the Republic of Moldova will also change. He will continue to move towards the EU in Ukraine's wake, but will have no real chance until the Transnistria issue is resolved. With a bit of luck, a favorable context can be created for solving this question. It is important that Moldovan pro-Western President Maia Sandu does not miss this moment. 

Romania will attempt a tandem with Bulgaria, which is far from certain as Sofia avoids any association with Bucharest – both in terms of Schengen and joining the eurozone. Romania will always be further away from the important moves in the region, even though it was best placed to do so. The frustration of the political and security elite in Bucharest will grow with the fear that they will be swept away in the next elections – in a similar context to 2004, when Traian Basescu surprisingly won the Romanian presidential elections in the wake of Ukraine's Orange Revolution.< /p>

And if the Kremlin, for whom the real casus belli was Ukrainians' adherence to Western values, is practically at war with the West – what other forces are there in Russia that could prevent an escalation and oust Vladimir Putin?

I believe that Russia has long been at war with the West, only since February 24, 2022 it has taken the form of a conventional war. As for the ability of the Russian elite to prevent an escalation, I have no illusions. But I'm not ruling out a scenario in which Putin is ousted from power in a coup and a new leader seeks to end the war to avoid humiliating defeat and peace terms that include disarming and defascizing Russia. And thus a new world order would be created in which Russia no longer has any reason to act as a permanent member of the Security Council.

But the West must make it clear that Russia is not launching a new war of aggression or a campaign of revenge. Otherwise, the generations after us will also wage their wars with Russia, and no one knows if they will win. At any moment, a new Putin could emerge in the Kremlin and threaten Central and Eastern Europe again.

Romanian historian Armand Gosu is Associate Professor of Political History of Russia and the Soviet Union at the University of Bucharest.

Adaptation from the Romanian: Robert Schwartz