Why Russia Believes It Cannot Lose the War in Ukraine

Sergey Karaganov is a prominent Russian political scientist whom I have known for almost 20 years in covering Russia and have interviewed many times as a window into Kremlin thinking. The academic director of the faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and honorary chairman of Russia’s premier nongovernmental think tank, Mr. Karaganov warned for years about a potential conflict in Ukraine over NATO expansion. Since the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, he has written articles and given interviews in broad support of President Vladimir Putin, so I interviewed him to better understand Mr. Putin’s aims in the conflict. Ukraine continues to suffer, and those who hope to support Ukraine must understand those aims as it tries to confront Russia’s aggression.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your articles and interviews, you have said, as President Putin has, that the war against Ukraine is existential for Russia. Why? In February 2022, there was no more talk of Ukraine joining NATO, Ukraine was posing no economic risk to Russia, the United States was far more concerned with China and the Middle East than with Russia. Where was the existential threat that required an all-out invasion?

When the military conflict started, we saw how deep Ukraine’s involvement with NATO was — a lot of arms, training. Ukraine was being turned into a spearhead aimed at the heart of Russia. Also we saw that the West was collapsing in economic, moral, political terms. This decline was especially painful after its peak in the 1990s. Problems within the West, and globally, were not solved. That was a classic prewar situation. The belligerence against Russia has been rapidly growing since the late 2000s. The conflict was seen as more and more imminent. So probably Moscow decided to pre-empt and to dictate the terms of the conflict.

This conflict is existential for most modern Western elites, who are failing and losing the trust of their populations. To divert attention they need an enemy. But most Western countries, not their presently ruling elites, will perfectly survive and thrive even when this liberal globalist imperialism imposed since late 1980s will vanish.

This conflict is not about Ukraine. Her citizens are used as cannon fodder in a war to preserve the failing supremacy of Western elites.

For Russia this conflict is about preservation not only of its elites, but the country itself. It could not afford to lose. That is why Russia will win even, hopefully, short of resorting to higher levels of violence. But people are dying. I have been predicting such a war for a quarter of century. And I have not been able to prevent it. I see it as a personal failure.

You said recently that Russia had to fight back against Western efforts to “take out Russia.” The tragic irony is that Russia is taking itself “out” through this war; the West has become united in its condemnation of the carnage in Ukraine; Sweden and Finland are joining NATO; and Russia will be regarded as a pariah and a serious threat for many years. Does this not indicate that the war was a terrible miscalculation?

The Russian-Western relations have been deteriorating for a decade and a half. There is nothing to lose from the collapse of the last months. Now Russia will contain and deter the West without any second thought and hopes left. We shall wait for what will happen within the West.

Taking into consideration the vector of its political, economic and moral development, the further we are from the West, the better it is for us. At least for the coming decade or two. Hopefully, afterward it will recuperate, the elites will partially be changed, and we shall normalize relations. We are not going to insulate ourselves suicidally from the rest of the world, which is developing largely in the right direction and is becoming larger and freer, while the West is rapidly shrinking. Only history could judge whether the decision to unleash an open confrontation was right. Maybe the decision should have been made earlier. And Covid postponed it.

Mr. Putin has often invoked the image of a Great Russia that is maligned by the West and that is somehow justified in invading the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Yet if there is a greatness to Russia, I, like many others of Russian descent, fear that Mr. Putin is destroying it. Many educated Russians are fleeing the country, Russian culture is being choked by repressive laws that brand anything with international connections as a foreign agent, international ties are being cut, Russian athletes and artists are suffering. Why is all this good for Russia?

For Russia, if it wants to develop and continue as a proud and sovereign state, this is a fight for the place in the future world order, for the fair and stable world order itself. Such a fight could not be won without losses. And I regret that tens of thousands of I.T. specialists have decided to leave for a better life. Though I know, as you do, that most Russian emigrants of intellect and dignity are left unhappy. Hopefully, some will return. The problem of canceling Russian culture, of everything Russian in the West, is the Western problem. Akin to canceling its own history, culture, Christian moral values.

Sergey Karaganov at the Wall of Grief in Moscow, a memorial to victims of Soviet-era political repressions.Credit…Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

Confrontation is narrowing the room for political freedom, and I am concerned about that. I am reiterating in most of my writings and public appearances that we should preserve freedom of thinking and intellectual discussion, which is still much wider than in many other countries. We do not have the cancel culture or impose the deafening political correctness. I am concerned about the freedom of thought in the future. But I am even more concerned about the growing probability of a global thermonuclear conflict ending the history of humanity. We are living through a prolonged Cuban missile crisis. And I do not see people of the caliber of Kennedy and his entourage on the other side. I do not know whether we have responsible interlocutors. But we are looking for them.

I am sympathetic toward my compatriots who will have less possibilities to continue normal lives due to Western sanctions, aimed at inflicting of as much pain on normal Russians as possible in hope that they would revolt. The effect is predictably opposite. But there is one bright spot in the generally sad picture. Belligerent Western policies, which are almost welcome, are cleaning our society, our elites, of the remains of pro-Western elements, compradors and “useful idiots.” So, “Make my day.” I love Clint Eastwood movies. But, of course, we are not closing ourselves to European culture. Moreover, I suspect that with cancel culture now on the rise in the West, we could remain one of the few places that will preserve the treasure of the European, Western culture and spiritual values. And we shall not betray the now politically incorrect Ernest Hemingway.

You said in a recent interview that many in the Russian elite are asking for a definition of “victory.” What is your definition?

It is a moving target. The minimum is the liberation from the Kievan regime of Donbas, which is in its final stages, and then of southern and eastern Ukraine. Then, Russia’s aim should probably be that the territory left under Kievan control will be neutral and fully demilitarized.

Ukraine is an important but small part of the engulfing process of the collapse of the former world order of global liberal imperialism imposed by the United States and movement toward a much fairer and freer world of multipolarity and multiplicity of civilizations and cultures. One of the centers of this world will be created in Eurasia, with the revived great civilizations that had been suppressed for several hundred years. Russia will be playing its natural role of civilization of civilizations. Russia should also be playing the role of the northern balancer of this system. I hope we shall be able to play this double role. We are proud heirs of a great culture created by Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol. He [Gogol] was coming from the lands that are now Ukraine, and formed our love for these lands. We are heirs of unbeatable warriors, like A. Suvorov, and marshals Zhukov and Rokossovsky. This world order is still over the horizon. But I am working to bring it closer.

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