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“This war against Ukraine is a struggle against civil society and democracy”

To mark the second anniversary of the Russian attack on the entire territory of Ukraine, Professor Dietmar Neutatz, the Professor of Modern and Eastern European History at the University of Freiburg, was interviewed about Vladimir Putin’s motives, the role of the West, and difficult scenarios for an end to the war

Freiburg, Feb 21, 2024

“This war against Ukraine is a struggle against civil society and democracy”

Prof. Dr. Dietmar Neutatz. Photo: Thomas Kunz

Professor Neutatz, what is your view of developments after two years’ war in Ukraine?

In 2022, Ukraine succeeded in frustrating the Russian attempt to liquidate it as a sovereign and independent state in a lightning attack. They were largely able to repulse the Russian troops and inflict large losses. Then, in 2023 they attempted a counter-offensive to push the Russian troops completely out of the occupied areas. They did not succeed – partly because support from Western countries was not fast enough and also not as much as was needed. This gave the Russians time to establish an in-depth, multilayered system of fortifications and minefields in the occupied areas. The longer this war lasts, the more precarious the Ukraine’s situation becomes, because it is harder for them to make up for losses of humans and materials than the Russian side. Time is on Vladimir Putin’s side, he knows that, it’s what he’s relying on. There is also the risk that willingness to support Ukraine diminishes in Western countries. The hope that the pain of sanctions would encourage a counter-movement to Putin’s war policy in Russia hasn’t yet been fulfilled, and there are no signs that it will in the foreseeable future.


What has changed in Russia’s stance in the past two years?

Essentially nothing. The goal of Putin’s policy is still to obliterate Ukraine as an independent, western-looking, sovereign state. That’s part of his concept of an imperialistic politics for Russia. Putin wants to go down in history as the ruler who led Russia back to being a major imperial power, and restored Russia’s dominance over the countries that were once part of the domain of the Soviet Union. The Russian people and especially children have been indoctrinated in imperial expansion and glorification of war for more than ten years. Putin has taken the long view of mentally preparing Russian society for war.

Besides this imperial motive, however, there is another which is all too often overlooked in the West: This war is a struggle against civil society and democracy. The ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine led to Putin fearing that this self-empowerment of civil society, turning towards democracy and the West, would spill over into Russia. He wants to prevent this by hook or by crook – because if it happened it would endanger his rule and the dictatorial regime that he has gradually built up over the past 23 years. In Putin’s logic, this alone is reason for the democratic, western-oriented Ukraine to be destroyed. However, since this didn’t work out as planned in 2022 and Putin needed visible successes, he quickly adapted and annexed parts of Ukraine. But this is only a stopgap. Everyone who advises Ukraine to buy peace by sacrificing land should know that: it wouldn’t be a lasting peace.


How do you rate the importance of the USA and the EU in the ongoing conflict?

Ukraine relies on the support of the USA and the European Union. Without this support it couldn’t withstand the pressure from Russia for long. Yet until now, Ukraine has only received enough from the West to stabilise the situation, but not enough to end this war successfully. If the West wants to support Ukraine so that it doesn’t lose this war, then it must deploy its superior economic potential more efficiently. Because at the moment the situation is paradoxical: Russia has only a fraction of the economic power of Western industry, but despite the sanctions is managing to stay ahead with arms production. The West must make it clear to Russia that with its vastly inferior economic power it will not be able to win this war in the medium term. But to do this, the West will have to be more resolute in its decision-making.


What prospects are conceivable for ending the war?

Wars end when one side capitulates or both sides come to the conclusion that continuing the war will not bring any further benefits. Neither is foreseeable at present. It is possible to conceive of various scenarios for how this war could end. The worst-case scenario would be Ukraine being forced to capitulate and submit to Russian demands. This would have unpredictable consequences, because it would strengthen Putin’s political position. It would also be dangerous for other neighbours of Russia, especially the Baltic countries, even if they are NATO members, because Putin might come to the conclusion that NATO wouldn’t undertake a major war or even risk nuclear war because of these small countries.

The best-case scenario would be a military success for Ukraine that forces Russia to withdraw from the annexed regions. This would mean humiliation for Putin, a visible failure of his policy, and would very likely also mean the end of his rule. Lasting peace might then be possible if there were a new, hopefully democratically-oriented, government.

Between those two extremes there is a range of scenarios which boil down to compromises. But with all these thought experiments, we must be clear that in the present situation, compromises would be highly unlikely to be a permanent solution, and that war would break out again after a period of gathering strength. The situation is also particularly difficult because Putin has annexed regions that the Russian army still doesn’t control. That means that Ukraine would also have to give up these areas if they accepted Putin’s conditions for peace talks. That could hardly be justified to its own people after all the sacrifices that have been made.


What might a stable arrangement after the war look like?

This war started because of Russia’s aggression against a neighbouring country. No one threatened Russia, no neighbouring country made territorial demands against Russia, Russia itself was quite clearly the aggressor and since its annexation of Crimea has had an expansionist policy. Therefore, peace must ensure that Russia’s neighbours are permanently and reliably protected against potential future aggression by Russia. For Ukraine this would either mean membership of NATO or equivalent security guarantees which would have to be sufficiently credible for Russia to take them seriously.

However, real, lasting peace would demand that Russia, and in particular the Russian leadership, abandons the imperialistic ideology that it is currently pursuing and promoting to its people. Russia must accept that it does not have the right to dominate over those countries that were controlled by the Soviet Union until 1991. Under Putin’s leadership that isn’t really conceivable, because he has essentially based his rule on this vision since about 2010 – it is at best only likely once a subsequent government restores the rule of law and democratic conditions. A democratic Russia that returns to peaceful politics would for its part have to be involved in a peace in such a way that revisionist reflexes do not develop – rather that it too feels respected. This is an extremely difficult challenge; whether it succeeds is doubtful. And anyway, all these scenarios are subject to the fact that the necessary conditions do not apply. At present I can’t see this war ending soon.


  • Professor Dietmar Neutatz is the Professor of Modern and Eastern European History in the University of Freiburg’s Department of History. He researches and teaches on among other things the history of Russia and the Soviet Union from the 18th to the 20th Century. His key areas of research include the social, day-to-day and cultural history of Stalinism, Constitutionalism and Anticonstitutionalism in the Russian Empire, the history of ethnic Germans from Russia, and heroes and heroisations.


Dietmar Neutatz is happy to help with media enquiries.

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