Research & Studies

Geopolitics and Security: Spotlight on Russia and Ukraine – Roundtable Debate


Future of Europe in a Global Context – iASK Lecture Series

As events in Ukraine unfold, important questions arise about the future of geopolitics and the security architecture of Europe. How will the tensions between the east and the west play out and what are the key tasks of the EU? Panelists will analyse key issues related to a transforming international order while discussing some of the historical roots of current events and their possible future trajectories.


Andrew C. Kuchinskeynote speaker (American political scientist, former head of the American University of Central Asia)

Date: 8th of March 2022 (Tuesday), at 3.00 p.m. (CET)

Venue: Zoom platform of iASK

Notes from the Roundtable Discussion by Ivana Stepanovic and Ravid Taghiyev

Why has Putin chosen this moment to invade Ukraine? The world is exhausted by the pandemic, mass migrations and economic crises, and it is failing to unite and find workable solutions for the most pressing issues such as climate change. How did we end up in another war after 23 years of persistent efforts to preserve the peaceful cohabitation of the East and West? What lessons have we failed to learn? What could have we done differently, and what are the solutions right now? These questions were in the focus of the roundtable discussion held on the 8th of March 2022, on the 13th day of the Russia-Ukraine war. Participants included the keynote speaker Andrew C. Kuchins, panelists Nataliya Zubar, Michal Vasecka, Orsolya Raczova and Ravid Taghiyev, and Ferenc Miszlivetz, who chaired the panel.


What Went Wrong with NATO?

To understand current events in Russia and Ukraine, we need to know history. Andrew C. Kuchins, American political scientist, academic and former head of the American University of Central Asia, took us back to the times of the end of the Cold War in his lecture titled “The End of the Dream to Create a Europe ‘Whole and Free’”. His main claim was that the idealist hopes of Europe becoming whole and free were shattered on February 24th, 2022. when Russia attacked Ukraine. He said that Russia’s concern with security started with the Bucharest Summit in 2008 when Ukraine and Georgia applied for NATO membership even though Putin clearly set out his red lines. Despite the reassurances that NATO is a peaceful and defensive alliance, their interference in former Yugoslavia and Libya proved that it was not. “I think that NATO membership for Ukraine was just a bridge too far”, he said and suggested that the West should think more openly about a neutral status. “If I wanted to prevent the war, I would have taken the Russian security concerns seriously. Russia has to feel reasonably comfortable in European Security architecture, otherwise, it is not going to work”.


The Nuclear Future is Now?

Nataliya Zubar, a social psychologist and data scientist from Kyiv, Ukraine who is currently the chair of the Maidan Monitoring Information Centre joined the meeting online from Kharkiv. The city devastated by the bombing was still under attack, and Nataliya informed us that she might not be able to stay with us long after she has heard the air raid sirens. She warned us that the future of Europe is happening right now.  She stressed that nuclear catastrophe is closer than we think, not just because of the possibility of a nuclear attack, but also because all nuclear power plants in Ukraine were threatened. Her answer to the question of what Putin’s end goal is in this war and what could end it was simple: “He will not stop”. In her opinion, NATO’s direct involvement in the war in Ukraine is the only way to stop Putin.

Orsolya Raczova, an expert in security studies with an MA and MSc degrees from King’s College London and London School of Economics who worked for GLOBSEC and Global Risk Insights spoke about security risks related to the conflict in Ukraine. She said that the Russian military tactic in Ukraine was previously applied in Grozny, Chechnya and Aleppo and Idlib, Syria, as evidence indicates. She also explained Russia’s nuclear capability in terms of strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapon arsenal. Drawing attention to Russia’s ‘escalate to win’ nuclear doctrine, she warned about its 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons that could be used ‘if a conventional war spins out of control’. Is there a real danger of nuclear war? Orsolya claims that chances for all-out nuclear war remain slim while the use of tactical nuclear armaments could be on the table. She also stressed that the Budapest Memorandum which guaranteed security assurances for Ukraine once it dropped its nuclear capabilities was not legally binding, and this gave Russia the excuse to violate it.


Do We Need a European Army?

Orsolya Raczova said that the entire world order based on the rule of law is in danger and that Europe is not a security actor. She pointed out that the most of Europe which relies on NATO to secure peace needs to rethink its security architecture and perhaps reconsider forming a European army.

Sociologist Michal Vašečka, Associate Professor at the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts and member of the editorial board of the Aspen Central Review Europe, raised similar concerns. His focus was on the “politics of interdependence” as he talked about the future of Europe’s relations with Russia and the US in the light of the war in Ukraine and its consequences for security architecture. He underlined Russia’s specific attitude towards law and power which superimposes the latter. Since the law is merely an instrument of power, it is not surprising that Russia chooses to violate international treaties and conventions in wars that are motivated by “messianic auto-stereotyping of themselves”. He noted that the Russian Constitutional Court approved the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation without considering compatibility with the UN Charter. Since Russia is and will be, in his opinion, a non-democratic country, Europe and NATO must accept this reality. In light of Russia’s stance towards democratic values and international law, as well as the disengagement of the US, Vašečka raised many important questions about the future of geopolitical relations:

  • Will the EU continue its attempts to build European security architecture with less US involvement? As I see it, at the moment, rather no.
  • Will France change their position on European security architecture that excludes Russia? I would say rather yes.
  • Will Germany continue with its Ostpolitik of maintaining peace and through interdependence with Russia? Honestly, I don’t know. Olaf Scholz has been sending contradictory messages that leave us completely confused.
  • What will be the standpoint of the Central European countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic? Are they going to be searching for their own independent modus operandi while trying to challenge French and German positions? Honestly, I don’t know.


Is Finlandization of Ukraine a Possible Solution?

Ravid Taghiyev, an iASK research fellow, talked about the broader consequences of the Russian invasion of Europe. He argued that the crisis “led international law and security in Europe to a dead-end”. According to him, the war fundamentally challenged the systems and mechanisms, both at the international (UN) and regional (OSCE, Budapest Memorandum) level. Ravid also touched upon the changing nature of the European security order by referring to Macron’s call for more autonomy over security matters in Europe, Germany’s willingness to militarize, and the concerns over the security of the non-NATO states in the EU like Sweden, Finland, and Austria. He spoke about the recent political developments in the other post-Soviet countries where separatist regimes under Russian protection might cause further escalation after Georgia and Moldova followed Ukraine’s steps and signed an official application for EU membership. Finally, he evaluated a potential scenario to secure Ukraine’s sovereignty and proposed the “Finlandization” of the country as a possible solution.

Andrew Kuchins agreed that the Finlandization of Ukraine is a reasonable solution to the problem – one which would offer Putin’s Russia the security assurances it needs. He claimed that a neutral position could be the “creative and flexible” solution for Ukraine everyone is searching for right now. “Finlandization used to have a pejorative meaning before but then Finland has developed to become a country with a high standard”.


What is Going on in Putin’s Head?

Many debates about the current conflict in Ukraine revolve around one single question: what is happening in the head of Vladimir Putin? The question was raised during this debate. “Is Putin a rational actor?”, asked Andrew Kuchins, and said that the answer to this question depends on the definition of what is a “rational actor”. His analysis of Russia’s sense of security and the role NATO itself had in the events that led to the war suggested that Putin could be seen as a rational actor. Ferenc Miszlivetz backed this argumentation by saying that he sees many rational decisions behind his acts. He pointed out that Putin’s attack on Ukraine occurred at a specific moment, two years into the pandemic, amid an economic crisis, cyber wars and climate change emergencies while the world fails to reach agreement on solving any of the pressing issues. “These things were foreseeable”, he said.

On the other hand, Nataliya Zubar criticized the stance that Putin is a rational actor. Her claims were backed by Ryszard Praszkier, a researcher at the Institute for Social Studies at the University of Warsaw and lecturer at the Polish Academy of the Psychology of Leadership. He claimed that Putin is a “psychopath with a plan” who has become dangerous and violent because he has encountered obstacles. He rejected the premise that his goal is simply to get security assurances and suggested that his ambition probably is to expand Russia, which is why the direct involvement of NATO is the only solution and the only chance to say “no” to him.

In response to this view, Ferenc Miszlivetz asked whether it is possible to resolve the “Putin paradox”. “If the West remains passive, there is fear that he will go further, and if the West intervenes, then there is a threat of all-out nuclear war”, he said and added that we need to think about multiple alternative futures for Europe.