Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, in collaboration with Al Jazeera Mubasher, organised a web conference on 28 and 29 March 2022, titled “Redrawing Spheres of Influence: The Dynamics and Implications of the Russian-Ukrainian War.” A select group of academics, researchers and experts participated in the conference from Russia, Ukraine and the United States as well as Europe, the Arab region and Asia. The conference was moderated by Waad Zakaria and broadcast on Al Jazeera Mubasher.
Over two days, the conference addressed the historical background and the social, ethnic and religious ties between Russia and Ukraine, focusing in particular on the evolution of political relations since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the independence of its former republics in 1991. Participants spoke of Ukraine’s subsequent orientation toward the Western world, ideologically, politically and in terms of defence, and Russia’s response to this turn, particularly its fears of NATO’s eastward expansion to include several former Soviet states.
The conference also took up the nature of military operations currently underway in Ukraine, addressing in particular the factors for Ukraine’s resilience in the face of the Russian military machine, the role of Western assistance in this context, and the potential extent of Ukrainian resilience.
The conference discussed the international response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, looking at the economic sanctions imposed by the West and its allies on Russia, their impact on the Russian, Western and global economy, and the alternatives available to the world’s states in dealing with the repercussions of the sanctions, in particular the rising prices of energy, grains, and many strategic goods in the short, medium and long terms.
Finally, participants discussed the impact of the war—both in Ukraine and neighbouring states—on the balance of power between Russia and the West and the changes it could entail if one party, Russia or the West, emerged weakened by the war, leaving a vacuum for other ambitious powers to fill.
The five panel discussions saw participants express a variety of views and outlooks given their diverse nationalities and political and intellectual leanings. These differences enriched the discussion, offering multiple perspectives that enlivened the discussion and gave their conclusions additional depth.
Ukrainian-Russian relations: consecutive tears to the fabric of kinship
In the first panel, the speakers looked at the historical background of Russian-Ukrainian relations, offering various historical narratives, each from their own perspective and historical lens. The discussion concluded that Ukraine, despite sharing much in common with Russia religiously, ethnically and linguistically, had its own particular identity, legal personhood and nationalist sensibility; and this was true even when it was subject to Russian influence and hegemony, whether under the tsars or Bolshevik rule and the Soviet Union, which officially ended in 1991.
The discussions noted that even in periods in which Ukraine was subordinate to Russia, Ukrainian nationalism persisted, waiting for the opportunity to make itself more visible. The tension in current Russian-Ukrainian relations is in part a result of his historical era.
Russian and Western calculations
The second panel spotlighted Russian and Western calculations in the war, launched by Russia on 24 February. The basic question that speakers attempted to answer was strategic: What strategic vision framed Russia’s decision to attack Ukraine? What sort of geopolitical and geostrategic calculations did it make? In addition, how has the West, particularly the NATO, the United States and the European Union, understood the war? What calculations did the West make when offering military, economic and diplomatic assistance to Ukraine and Eastern European states?
As noted above in regard to the diverse perspectives heard in the conference, the Russian side, represented by Alexander Nikitin, Director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Security at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, concluded that Russia perceived a strategic threat in the NATO’s expansion to include states close to the Russian Federation, especially Poland, Hungary and Romania. Indeed, Russia was convinced that the NATO was encircling it and threatening its interests. US military presence in Europe reached nearly 100,000 troops, and the NATO’s collective defence budget increased to some $1 trillion, or 25-fold Russian military spending. For this reason, Nikitin said, Moscow launched its military operation in Ukraine to prevent further NATO expansion, protect Russian-speakers in the eastern regions, and demilitarise Ukraine so that it will not constitute a future threat for Russia. Russia also sought to “de-Nazify” Ukraine with the war, particularly the Azov Battalion, and purge the Ukrainian military establishment of leadership that hold Nazi thought. Nikitin concluded that Moscow intends to change Ukrainian academic curricula as part of its endeavours to de-Nazify the country and work to make Ukraine a neutral state.
Nikitin surmised that Ukraine would be partitioned into three entities in the coming five years, two annexed to neighbouring countries and a third remaining an independent neutral entity: the first part would include the eastern regions, among them Crimea and Donbas, and would be annexed to Russia; the second part, located on Ukraine’s western border, would be annexed to Poland, Hungary and Romania; and the third part, central Ukraine, would be a neutral state that naturally cooperated politically with Russia.
Asked about Russia’s calculations in launching the war, Nikitin concluded that they represented “Moscow’s desire to recalibrate its relations with the West by sending a message through its military operation in Ukraine that we want to return to the family of global powers.”
Discussing Western calculations in the war, Eugene Chausovsky, Senior Analyst and Programme Head at the Newlines Institute, and Mattia Nelles, an expert on Russian-Ukrainian relations at the Center for Liberal Modernity in Germany, said that Russia’s claims about the threat from Ukraine if the latter joined the NATO were “feeble,” as evidenced by the fact that Western states like Germany and France have been clear since 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would not be admitted to the NATO because their borders are internationally disputed, which contravenes conditions for membership.
Chausovsky and Nelles said that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 made Ukraine more determined to join the NATO and the EU, seeking protection from constant Russian threats.
The Eastern European states that joined NATO, they said, did so because “NATO was and remains their sole guarantee of a sense of security.” They concluded that the West views Russia as “a destabilising factor” and that the admission of former Warsaw Pact states to the NATO to “support its defensive policy,” while not excluded in principle, will not happen “at least in the present stage,” given both states’ disputed borders.
They added that the Western pro-Ukrainian stance—political, economic, and military—is attributable to “the desire to weaken Russia,” to prevent the latter from attacking Ukraine or any other states, if Russia comes out of the war victorious.
The military and strategic perspective
The participants in this panel discussed the trajectory and outcomes of current military operations. Retired General Olivier Kempf, an expert on NATO affairs and the digital and cyber revolution, said that Russia would not be able to fully realise its desired objectives. With operations faltering, it is faced with “a reassessment of its military posture,” considering the rejection of Russia by the majority of Ukrainians and the Russian failure to take the capital and other major cities such as Kharkiv, Odessa and Lviv. He said that the Ukrainian army had proved highly effective in combat, resilient and proficient with the modern weaponry supplied by Western states. In this, it surprised military observers and experts. Kempf expected the war to be a protracted one if the current negotiations between the two parties fail.
Kempf concluded that the Russian army cannot wage an urban war if a decision is made to invade major Ukrainian cities, “because it does not possess the tools to win at this type of war.”
Russian expert Vadim B. Kozyulin, Director of the Centre for Global Studies & International Relations at the Institute of Contemporary International Studies of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained, in response to Kempf, that there is a misperception on part of the West of the Russian military planning in the war. They believed that the Russian leadership was planning a quick war that would end in a week. This is “not true,” Kozyulin said, because the objective of the Russian military operation is “to demilitarise Ukraine,” which means making certain that the Ukrainian armed forces have no weapons that can threaten Russia. In its operations, the Russian army had attempted to reduce civilian casualties insofar as possible, within the framework of international humanitarian law, and this is why the war has gone on so long.
Kozyulin added that since the Ukrainian army is the biggest in Europe in terms of the number of troops and tanks, the first phase of the Russian military operation aimed to undermine its military capabilities by destroying its tanks, armoured vehicles, warplanes, helicopters and ammunitions stores. According to Russian estimates, Kozyulin said, the Ukrainian army has thus far lost 60–70 percent of its assets and military and combat capabilities. For the Russian forces, “the first phase of the military operation in Ukraine ended in success.”
Alexander Khara, the chair of the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies in Ukraine, took the opposite view, saying that the main objective of the Russian army was the targeting of civilians, children and women. He added that the Russians failed to take control of Kiev as they wished, and that the Ukrainian army was able to hold them back and liberate towns, villages and cities that had already fallen to the Russian army. The Ukrainian army had also managed to stop the Russian advance in south, thus far making it difficult for the Russian army to take the cities and towns along the Black Sea. Khara said the Russian army wanted to take these areas to cut off Ukraine from its territories on the Black Sea, part of the Russian action that began in 2014 when the Russians annexed Crimea. “But we thwarted this,” Khara said.
He added that Russia is pursuing “a scorched-earth policy,” as it did in Chechnya and Syria, with the aim of spreading terror among civilians. For this reason, “they are arbitrarily targeting civilian infrastructure.” Even so, Russia has not achieved its objectives.
Asked why the Ukrainian army has not liberated Donbas, Khara said that it would require withdrawing troops from Kharkiv, which the armed forces do not wish to do because it would be a strategic error. If troops were withdrawn from the city, it would clear the way to the capital and from there to the Black Sea. “It is wise to keep our defence of Kiev strong,” he said, “and we have enough troops to do this.”
Before the panel concluded, military expert Olivier Kempf commented on Kozyulin’s assertion that Russian forces had destroyed 60–70 percent of Ukrainian military capabilities. “If this true,” he asked, “why have Russian forces not yet achieved victory over an army that possesses only 30–40 percent of its strength?”
The panel ended, as it had begun, with a sharp divergence of views about the reasons and justifications for the war, and the outcome of military operations a month into the war. Nevertheless, the participants agreed that it was difficult to resolve the war militarily as long as the Ukrainian army endured and Western support continued.
Economic implications: short and long term
This panel dealt with the economic impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine, both in the warring countries as well as in Europe and other regions of the world linked economically to Russia and Ukraine. The panel focused primarily on the impact on vital commodities like oil, gas, wheat and seed oils.
Ahmed Khalifa, associate professor of economics at Qatar University, started off by noting that the fallout of the war varied from one country to the next, but in general it had spurred rising prices in basic goods around the world, including oil and gas, whose price rose more than 60 percent in one month, leading to the hikes in electricity prices and transport and shipping costs the world over.
He added that the war had damaged the energy-intensive industrial sector, particularly in Europe and other states, while having similarly adverse effects on the tourism, agriculture and trade sectors.
For some countries, Khalifa said, the war has had a destructive impact on the economy.
This is true for Ukraine, for example, which was invaded, and Russia, which has faced sanctions. Other countries suffered adverse impacts on their economy that are expected to worsen in the future if the war continues. This includes states that rely for food on imports from Russia and Ukraine, most of them in Africa. In contrast, some states will benefit from the war; Iran and Venezuela, for example, are major oil and gas exporters, and US pressure on them may ease in order to take advantage of their production of these two vital commodities. As for China, Khalifa said that it might come out ahead in the short term thanks to its ties to Russia, but in the medium and long term it was vulnerable to harm if the US and Europe impose sanctions because of its assistance to Russia.
Mahmoud Haddad, a professor of finance at the College of Public Affairs at the University of Tennessee, explained that Russia’s exclusion from the global transfer system (SWIFT) would have a negative impact on both importers and suppliers. He said that while Russia does have alternatives it can use to circumvent the SWIFT, like banking transfers through telex, which existed prior to 1973, these alternatives are not fast or safe and are more costly. But economic sanctions will not have an immediate impact in the foreseeable future, he said, pointing to the example of Iran, which was ejected from the SWIFT system but nevertheless endured.
Naser al-Tamimi, a researcher specialised in Gulf state economies, said that replacing European energy imports in the short term is unlikely given the extremely high economic cost. The main problem for Europe, he said, is gas, followed by oil and then coal. The EU needs a decade to wean itself entirely off Russian gas. Foregoing Russian oil in the next 1–3 years seems similarly unlikely given various complexities associated with refineries and pipelines between Russia and the EU, as well as the type of crude oil available on the market. Moreover, alternatives are not widely available except among OPEC member states, which so far do not seem disposed to increasing production to make up for market shortages. As for coal, although Europe imports half of its coal from Russia, the EU has said that it could give up these imports this year thanks to alternative sources in Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Al-Tamimi concluded that European imports of Russian gas would remain stable for quite some time provided there was no unbearable escalation of the war in Ukraine; oil imports could be replaced in the short term while coal imports could be replaced this year.
Structural implications: new international balances of power
The fifth and final panel was given over to a discussion of the war’s implications for the balance of power and its impact on the global order. Dr. Chin-Huat Wong, a professor of political science at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development in Malaysia, first pointed to Western double standards in dealing with international crises. He then said that the war in Ukraine is likely to give added impetus to demands to alter the UN Security Council, expanding it beyond the five countries that effectively control international decision making.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said that the war in Ukraine will spur a global arms race, as multiple states strive for nuclear deterrence to protect themselves against the great powers. In one sign of this race, Chellaney said, the EU announced it would increase defence spending, signalling that the world is entering a new arms race and cold war.
Chellaney said that the sanctions on Russia will impact numerous countries around the world and could divide the global economy into two blocs, instead of the current globalised world, particularly when it comes to finding an alternative to SWIFT.
Karina Korostelina, Professor and Director of the Peace Lab on Reconciling Conflict and Intergroup Divisions at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, said that the war had heightened nationalist sentiment among Ukrainians. This achieved the opposite of what Russian President Vladimir Putin desired, fostering a growing sense of Ukrainian identity. She added that this identity has been a strength for Ukraine and factor that has undermined Russian military operations.
Korostelina said that if the war persists, the issue of Ukrainian refugees, who poured into Europe where they received a warm, sympathetic welcome, will turn into a “crisis.” The countries and societies where they found refuge will suffer because of the added pressure on services, facilities and resources.
Finally, Hasan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University, responding to a question about the implications of the Ukrainian war for the Arab Spring, said that whether Putin was defeated or victorious in Ukraine would have no impact on Arab peoples seeking to rid themselves of despotism and totalitarian regimes, given that these regimes are deeply entrenched and difficult to remove in the current period.
Nafaa said that the Arab states that were reluctant to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine would likely have little impact on international attitudes given their small numbers and also their relative marginality in the global order.
In light of the discussion during the conference, it seems that Russia miscalculated the war, both militarily and strategically. It was surprised by the capabilities of the Ukrainian army and the resilience of its political system, as well as by the magnitude of Western support and assistance and the unity of NATO member states and the EU. Additionally, Russia did not anticipate the magnitude of the unprecedented sanctions imposed on it. These factors combined persuaded it of the need to recalculate, reconsider its objectives and begin negotiations based on more pragmatic foundations.
The conference also concluded that war has demonstrated that the current US-led international order has entered a phase of more rapid transformation, particularly after Russia, China, India and other important states have taken positions that suggest their dissatisfaction with the nature of this order and its political and economic mechanisms.
The conference concluded that the world will see a new arms race reminiscent of the Cold War era. Many countries will strive to become nuclear powers for deterrence and to support their positions in wars, conflicts, and serious international crises.
For more, watch the conference through the following links: