By Mohammad Mazhari

Moscow acts as if it wants to intervene in Ukraine: Russian professor

February 16, 2022 - 22:25
‘In today's information age, many wars are primarily waged in the information sphere, not on the actual battlefields’

TEHRAN – A professor from the Faculty of Political Science in Moscow State University says Russia is acting in a way as if it wants to invade Ukraine to prevent Kyiv’s attack on Donbas but the Kremlin has no desire to do so.

“Moscow decided to behave as if it wanted to intervene–without any desire to launch an actual intervention–so as to deter Kyiv's supposed military move in Donbas,” Stanislav Byshok tells the Tehran Times.

 “To avoid this negative scenario, these actions by Moscow were interpreted by Kyiv and its NATO partners as Russia's genuine plans to intervene in earnest,” Byshok argues.

He says many commentators predict that any clash between Russia and Ukraine would inevitably lead to massive loss of lives from both sides and Western harsh sanctions on Moscow among other things.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: How do you assess the current escalation between Russia and NATO over Ukraine?

A: Many commentators consider the current escalation unprecedented in the whole post-Cold war era. I subscribe to this assessment adding that today's situation seems completely unprovoked. Sure, the relations between Russia and NATO have been worsening for quite a while. However, since 2015, there have been no major battles between the Ukrainian army and the Russia-supported rebels in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Since then, nobody realistically claimed that the Kremlin wants to invade Ukraine, annex its eastern half, take over Kyiv, and install a pro-Moscow puppet government there.

“Any war with Ukraine or any other neighbor is perceived negatively by the Russian public.”In late 2021, certain Western outlets published reports on Russia's massive military buildup along Ukraine's eastern borders. Some claimed Moscow was about to invade its neighbor on behalf of the self-proclaimed breakaway Donbas republics, the Donetsk and Lugansk "people's republics," that is, many of whose inhabitants have already got Russian citizenship. When asked about its recent military maneuvers, the Kremlin plainly answered that it has all the rights to deploy its troops and military vehicles anywhere on the Russian territory–yet didn't say anything about the motives behind that massive deployment. This uncertainty gave more grounds to those suspecting the Kremlin of preparing for the Ukraine invasion. The ongoing large-scale joint Russian-Belarusian military drills near Ukraine's northern border don't make things more soothing.

My speculative reconstruction of the recent events is as follows. Sometime in late 2021, Moscow got a piece of intelligence from Ukraine that Kyiv is planning an all-out military operation against the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine so as to restore full sovereignty over these territories. If that happened, Moscow would be compelled to openly intervene to protect the Russian passport-holders there. This intervention would inevitably lead to massive loss of lives from both sides, destruction, further isolation of Russia from Western economies, more harsh economic sanctions, etc. To avoid this negative scenario, Moscow decided to behave as if it wanted to intervene–without any desire to launch an actual intervention–so as to deter Kyiv's supposed military move in Donbas. Then, these actions by Moscow were interpreted by Kyiv and its NATO partners as Russia's genuine plans to intervene in earnest. 

Any scholar of international relations knows that states always operate in world affairs having limited and often distorted information about others' intentions. In this dangerous fog-of-war environment, misunderstandings often happen.

Q: Do you think Western media outlets are fueling the crisis by depicting a war state between Russia and Ukraine?

Not only in the media but also in the political class and among the expert community in the West, there's a clear consensus that Russia is the principal responsible party for the Ukraine crisis, which started in 2014. The 2014 Crimea referendum was not recognized by the Western powers (and Eastern as well), Russia is believed to be supporting the breakaway republics of Donbas militarily, the tragedy of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17, which crashed in Donbas, is blamed at Russia's surface-to-air missile complex Buk, etc. Granting Russian passports to the breakaway republics' residents is also considered weaponization rather than a form of protecting them: Moscow has no legal obligation to protect pro-Russian citizens of Ukraine's east, but if these people obtain Russian citizenship, it makes them too "expensive" a target, as cynical as it sounds, for the Ukrainian army.

Against that backdrop, there's no surprise that, when the first pieces of information about Russia's military moves close to the Ukrainian border appeared, many instantly jumped to a conclusion about the invasion preparation. The obvious question, "Why would Russia decide to overtly intervene in 2022 and not in 2014, when the Ukrainian army and the state were much weaker than today?", is never asked. That's what amazes me as a political scientist in the current situation. Actors' motives matter.
On the bright side of it, it's important to mention that in today's information age, many wars are also primarily waged in the information sphere, not on the actual battlefields. The ratio is approximately 90 to 10. That gives us regular people some ground for cautious optimism. 

Q: How is NATO penetrating into Russia's sphere of influence by surrounding Moscow?

A: Since the late XVth century, when the Russians finally overcame the Golden Horde rule and incorporated the formerly Mongol-controlled territories into the Russian body politic, all the major invasions Russia faced have been from the West–culminating in Nazi Germany's surprise invasion during WWII. Hence, the Kremlin's security concerns and its supposed fixation on NATO eastward expansion can be justified historically. 

The received understanding of Russia's military history, as it taught domestically, is that the Russians have always defended themselves and never launched aggressive wars of territorial expansion. This pacifist narrative is challenged by many of Moscow's (or Saint Petersburg's if speaking about the imperial period of Russian history) former subjects, including Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine. They claim that Russian imperialism suppressed the cultural, political, and economic development of the states’ ethnically non-Russian peoples and that this policy was perpetuated by Soviet rule and even later, by the contemporary Russian Federation. Hence, when the Kremlin voices its concerns about NATO's eastward expansion, those former communist Central and Eastern European states, who have already joined NATO or aspire to join, claim that it's not NATO that is expanding towards Russia, it's these states that run from Russia, fearful of its eventual aggressive moves. Unfortunately, as of today, it seems that Russia and NATO talk past each other and play the blame game, i.e. explaining their actions in terms of reacting to the opponent's supposedly unfriendly moves.

Q: Do you think Russia is able to form a coalition with Asian countries and regional powers like Iran and China to curb NATO expansion?

A: The BRICS group has been an attempt to form some kind of a balancing coalition, yet it's hard to call this enterprise a roaring success. The states comprising BRICS are too diverse–politically, economically, culturally, and territorially–to form a unified front. There's deep animosity between the two most populous ones–China and India. At the same time, India fares among the most pro-American nations in Asia. Concurrently, Brazil, the largest economy in South America and the whole Southern Hemisphere, is very much dependent on its economic ties with the U.S. Last but not least, today's global popular culture and technologies are, for the most part, products of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Even if we want to voice our opposition towards American policies, we'll most certainly do it via American social media platforms on the American-created Internet. That makes the situation even more complicated.

Speaking of a possible Chinese-Russian-Iranian axis, it's difficult to imagine what it would look like in practical terms. We can realistically imagine a joint statement the three nations can produce–debunking the American hegemony, praising the multipolar world, stating the respect for civilizational diversity, etc. But what practical actions would these ideological statements entail? China, whatever its current relations with the West, is a global power absolutely essential to the entire world economy. The gadgets your readers use as they read this interview are almost certainly China-manufactured. China's own growing prosperity, which started several decades ago, rests primarily on the country's being part of the global economy.

Despite their relative strength, both Russia and Iran are incomparable to China in their importance to the global economy. In any possible formal coalition with Beijing, Moscow and Teheran would be junior partners–a non-starter for such ambitious post-imperial nations as the Russians and the Persians. More importantly, there's absolutely nothing China would get in severing its ties with the West while strengthening its relations with Russia and Iran. For all its Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, China is too pragmatic a nation to launch a world revolution in earnest.

Q: What would be the fallout of U.S. harsh sanctions on Russia's banks?

A: The Russian banks have been under severe restrictions since the Crimea referendum and the start of the Donbas conflict in 2014. They are deprived of the possibility to obtain long-term low-interest rate credits from Western banks. That, among other things, has contributed to the economic troubles and considerable inflation in Russia. Of course, if Russia intervened in Ukraine, new, even more, severe sanctions would follow. Nobody in Russia wants it, even the most hawkish hot heads. 

Ergo, it brings us back to the central question that is not addressed by those claiming Russia is up to launching an overt invasion of Ukraine: What, if anything, good would the Kremlin get if it decided to attack its neighbor? What, aside from harsh international sanctions and the burden to invest heavily in the newly acquired territories, would it get? Needless to say, any war with Ukraine or any other neighbor is perceived negatively by the Russian public, according to all the recent opinion polls. So let's hope that the current escalation will fit into the aforementioned 90% of the information warfare that is waged in the media and not on the battlefield.

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