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Dominic Lieven: 'It's Against Ukraine's Interest To Take Back Crimea'


Historian Dominic Lieven spoke to RFE/RL's Georgian Service about the war in Ukraine, Russia's grievances, and how the conflict is likely to end. (file photo)
Historian Dominic Lieven spoke to RFE/RL's Georgian Service about the war in Ukraine, Russia's grievances, and how the conflict is likely to end. (file photo)

Historian Dominic Lieven is a visiting professor at the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. A fellow of the British Academy, Lieven writes about Russian history, empire, the Napoleonic era, and World War I. His latest book, published in 2022, is titled In The Shadow Of The Gods: The Emperor In World History.

Lieven, who was awarded Russia's Order of Friendship in 2014, spoke to RFE/RL's Georgian Service about the war in Ukraine, Russia's grievances, and how the conflict is likely to end.

RFE/RL: Describing the fall of the Soviet Union, you once said that "Russia was demoted from superpower to beggar." But this was back in the 1990s. If it was a beggar back then, what is Russia now?

Dominic Lieven: Well, obviously, there was a partial recovery from the 1990s -- much of the resources of which went into attempting to rebuild the armed forces. Part of that recovery was also that it enabled [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to pay pensions to rescue much of the population from the economic catastrophe of the 1990s.

Actually, as we see now, the armed forces remain, except for on the surface, riddled with problems. And to some extent, the recovery has lulled Putin into the illusion that he has restored Russian power to a much greater extent than is in fact the case. That is evident however this war ends. It has very much exposed the fragility of Russia's external military recovery. I think that is undoubted.

RFE/RL: Has Russia once again become a full-fledged empire?

Lieven: It isn't powerful enough to be a full-scale empire for a start. It's at best a very diminished empire…. Russian hard power, with the exception of its nuclear forces, which are almost unusable, although they do give it a certain degree of leverage…has been exposed as fragile and hollow.

The complication with the Russians, and particularly the Russian elite, is that they have this concept of Russia as a great power, and Russia as having the legitimate interests of a great power."

It has sacrificed much of the soft power which it did, to some extent, possess from the long heritage of Russian culture, and the respect with which that is viewed in much of the world.

I suspect it's also forfeited much of the remaining good opinion it had in some of the non-Russian areas of the former Soviet Union; above all, Kazakhstan, for the very simple reason that if Russia is now going to be challenging borders, then it isn't just the Ukrainians, but other former peoples of the Soviet Union, who have every reason to feel nervous and angry.

RFE/RL: Sometimes Russia is described as "Europe's last colonialist state." Would you agree with that characterization?

Lieven: One way to think about this is that, in its own obviously unique way, the Soviet Union was a sort of empire. It was vast, it was powerful, and it was multi, multi, multinational. Those are my three key elements in the definition of empire.

Obviously, it was sui generis (in a class by itself) in many respects. But, nevertheless, it does seem to me to have been the last of the great European empires. It collapsed decades after all the others.

We are living with the consequences of that collapse, one of the consequences being the nostalgia for empire and the status and the power that it brings…. I try not to use the word "colonial" because it's become ambiguous nowadays because of the endless verbiage around post-colonialism.

RFE/RL: You once wrote that if lasting peace and security are ever to be achieved in Europe, we also need to understand the legitimate security concerns of the broader Russian elite. What are those security concerns? And what makes them legitimate?

The Tavberidize Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

Lieven: The basic point is that any state, any polity, has legitimate security interests. At its most basic, they boil down to the inviolability of its territory, its right to participate as a recognized player [internationally], etc.

The complication with the Russians, and particularly the Russian elite, is that they have this concept of Russia as a great power, and Russia as having the legitimate interests of a great power.

The Russian perception is essentially of a great power in the pre-1914 world, where, after all, the concept of great powers was a precisely demarcated club. By convention, [and] even to some extent by the rules of international relations, great powers had certain specific rights and privileges, which ordinary countries did not.

To some extent, it will always be the case in international relations that power counts…. But there have to be some limitations. Certainly in the perception of the Western powers, and indeed beyond the Western powers, it isn't just great powers which have the right to protect their borders, their independence, their self-determination, it is, after all, all nation-states, so called, which are members of the United Nations. So this whole Russian claim to have the right to control its neighborhood is a very dubious one, and a dangerous one. And one which is, in a sense, at the core of this conflict with Ukraine.

The Russians do have a point in pointing to the infraction of international law involved. But, at the same time, that point would have been better made had the Russians at any time shown any sensitivity to the scale of the atrocities being committed by the Serbs."

Even in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, [and] all Russian governments since, to varying degrees, expected to exercise by right the predominant influence in their neighborhood, including over Ukraine, which is a very large country.

There was always an inherent conflict between the determination of most Ukrainians to decide their own fate and a Russian view that they had a veto on, at the very least, Ukraine's international relations [and] foreign policy.

There was a lurking conflict there from the start. It doesn't mean it necessarily needed to end up this way. But there was always the danger it would.

RFE/RL: You have also written that Moscow has legitimate grievances about Western disregard for Russian sensitivities. Let's discuss those as well, because I think this is at the core of the Russian narrative: when they claim they've been cornered, that they didn't have any other choice regarding Ukraine, and it was either act now or wait until it was too late.

Lieven: Which I basically think is nonsense. That is untrue, and there is a great deal of self-pity and a great deal of self-delusion in that, but I don't think it's completely untrue. Put it that way.

The most obvious example -- and one which by no means only the Russians were very angry about -- was the [U.S.] attack on Iraq [in 2003]. Perfectly obviously, that was both an infraction of international law and the rules by which the international community is run.

It was also an extremely stupid mistake. One which has very greatly weakened the United States, both domestically and internationally, and the British played their full part in it, as well.

That would stand at the top of the list of ways in which the United States acted as if it had a supreme right to be the international policeman and umpire simultaneously…. The Russians, and even the French, the Germans, and many other countries, had good reason to see the American invasion of Iraq as illegitimate quite apart from the fact that it turned out to be damn stupid -- not unlike, you know, Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

RFE/RL: In terms of Russia's grievances, what else is there? What about recognition of Kosovo?

Lieven: That's not at the same level, because it's not as dramatic, enormous, as the invasion of Iraq and turning the whole peace and order in the Middle East upside down. But yes, the Russians always point to this.

They have a third of a point. Either international law doesn't allow the forcible secession and then recognition by outside powers of seceding provinces, or it does.

You can make a more than plausible case for saying that, historically, probably it's fair to say that Crimea belongs more to Russia than it does to Ukraine..."

Again, the Russian case would have been better, protesting against Kosovo being split off and turned into an independent state and recognized, had the Russian government, at any moment, acknowledged that the Serbs committed some pretty horrendous acts.

I hate the word "genocide" -- it wasn't a genocide, but mass, mass murder. And if left to their own devices, they probably would have attempted to ethnically cleanse as much, of course, as they could.

The Russians do have a point in pointing to the infraction of international law involved. But, at the same time, that point would have been better made had the Russians at any time shown any sensitivity to the scale of the atrocities being committed by the Serbs.

RFE/RL: What about NATO expansion, which some have turned into a defense case for Russia? What do you make of that argument?

Lieven: I can see the point. And again, I would concede there is some validity to it -- less that is true of the business with Kosovo.

On this one, one can see two sides. On the one hand, when NATO began to expand in the 1990s, you could understand Russian indignation. They had good reasons to feel that. This was, to some extent, breaking an implicit understanding in the early 1990s.

More to the point, it was occurring at a time when there was no Russian threat to the Poles, not of any meaningful sort, or the Czechs, or anyone else. Or indeed when it was extended to the three Baltic republics, there was no obvious or immediate Russian threat. So that's the Russian point [of view].

Of course, if you're looking at it from the other point of view and certainly for the three Baltic republics, they had a very, very good case.

If you look at their experience in the last 100 years, all peoples squashed between Germany and Russia…knowing something about Russian history and the strength of revanchist and nationalist currents in Russia…you can hardly be surprised that they, above all, but also the Poles and the Czechs, should have absolutely leapt at the idea that they could acquire security under the umbrella of American power.

This is something if you're a Latvian or a Czech, if you're any of the smaller peoples of Eastern Europe who've suffered for generations from this overwhelming reality that you have two very, very powerful and frequently aggressive neighbors. And whatever those neighbors get up to, it's bad. If they fight each other, you're the battlefield. And if they gang up together, you lose your independence, even without fighting.

At last they find a favorable geopolitical context in the 1990s. They are aware of the potential fragility of democracy in Russia and of Russian acceptance of the 1991 settlement. Of course they jump at NATO membership, and who would blame them? I certainly wouldn't.

You'll find very few Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians at the moment who wouldn't say, "My God, we made the right choice." And they did. I think they did. But, as I say, one can understand why in the 1990s Russia felt a bit aggrieved.

RFE/RL: In your writing, you haven't necessarily equated Putin with Hitler, but you have made a certain analogy: With or without Hitler, you write, Germany would probably in time have challenged the post-World War I order in Central and Eastern Europe. Would the same have happened here, with Russia and Putin? Would Russia still have challenged the European security architecture without Putin? Would it still have invaded Ukraine?

Lieven: It is always very dangerous when the latently, potentially most powerful state in a region is also the one which is the big loser in some kind of territorial settlement, just as Germany was latently the most powerful polity by far in Central Europe and, to some extent, Eastern Europe, but was defeated in 1918…. The same was true of Russia in 1991.

If you want my ideal scenario -- it's not going to happen, of course -- it would be that Ukraine conquered every inch of its territory back to the 1991 frontier, staged referenda in Crimea and at least in the eastern Donbas, and then if, as would probably happen, those referenda went for Russia, get rid of these people [from Ukraine]."

You can't forget the fact that suddenly 25 million Russians found themselves outside the borders of the Russian Federation, for example. So there is always going to be a big danger.

It is not necessarily the case that even a Russian democracy, certainly a Russian "illiberal democracy" to use [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban's term, is going to be any less willing to challenge the territorial settlement than is Putin's plebiscitary autocracy….

If [late Russian Lieutenant General] Aleksander Lebed had become head of state rather than Putin, I suspect he would have challenged the territory settlement. He would probably have tried to get Crimea back; I don't know. Of course, in so doing, just as Putin, he would have had very great support in Russia.

You can make a more than plausible case for saying that, historically, probably it's fair to say that Crimea belongs more to Russia than it does to Ukraine…. Historically, all sorts of places, you could argue, belonged to polities which they don't belong to now. In 1850, Prague was a German city.

So one has to temper history with the reality that the international order is based on sovereign states with recognized boundaries, and that the Russians did recognize independent Ukraine within its present boundaries or within its pre-2014 boundaries.

They recognized it at independence; they recognized it again when the agreement to hand over nuclear weapons was made. Thirty years after Ukrainian independence has been recognized, it is actually very dangerous and illegitimate to put forward historical claims to territory.

RFE/RL: Let me ask you about the territories that Russia has seized and occupies now. In March, you wrote that "even after Mr. Putin departs, any future Russian government will find it exceedingly hard to retreat from Donbas, let alone Crimea, and retain legitimacy." As things turn out, Ukraine might help in this regard.

Lieven: Well, my own view, actually, is that quite apart from any interest that Ukraine might have -- and it does have an interest in not having a permanently dangerous and hostile Russia on its eastern border -- if the Ukrainians did somehow get back Crimea, it would simply be a never-ending source of danger and conflict.

It's flatly against Ukraine's interest to take back Crimea. If you want my ideal scenario -- it's not going to happen, of course -- it would be that Ukraine conquered every inch of its territory back to the 1991 frontier, staged referenda in Crimea and at least in the eastern Donbas, and then if, as would probably happen, those referenda went for Russia, get rid of these people [from Ukraine].

RFE/RL: Get rid of these people or get rid of the land, as well?

Lieven: Get rid of both. You can't ethnically cleanse them and you don't need to…. What you want inside your territory, to the extent possible, are citizens loyal to the state. The last thing you want is some constantly dissatisfied minority, with an inevitably, in the long run, more powerful neighbor on the other side of your eastern frontier who's going to get excited on their behalf.

I really don't think Ukraine gains very much from recovering territories of that sort, in which nowadays in eastern Ukraine, most of the population, by definition, are likely to be pro-Russian, or they wouldn't be there any longer."

No, what Ukraine wants is to consolidate everything but the eastern Donbas and Crimea, if it could get them back, and then concentrate on rebuilding a prosperous, stable democracy. In the long run, just as West Germany in the long run totally undermined East Germany by the power of its example, I think that would be the most optimistic scenario for the Ukrainians.

I also realize it is impossible to say this to most Ukrainians at the moment, and it would be impossible to say it to me if I was a Ukrainian. These people are fighting for their lives; they're doing so with immense courage; they have suffered enormously.

Not merely have they been invaded, but by any standard the Russians have behaved appallingly in many respects [with the] destruction of civilian infrastructure etc. So I absolutely understand that it is very difficult to fight this kind of war with the patriotism and the commitment they have and to retain a cool, hard-headed view of a peace settlement.

It's important for their leaders to push them gently in that direction, to change the terms in which things are debated: Don't debate whether you're going to cede territory, debate whether you're going to get rid of territory and the people on it who are unworthy of being your citizens and will be a constant source of weakness and trouble….

It's not a very happy scenario for the Ukrainian population of Crimea in 2021, not a very happy scenario for the…Crimean Tatars, who in some ways have been worse treated of all, but politics and international relations are a hard-headed business.

RFE/RL: Even if we put aside the argument to be made that this would mean a lot of people losing what they consider their home, how would, in the long term, losing Crimea and most of Donbas be beneficial for Ukraine?

Lieven: Yes, I think it would [be beneficial]. Fundamentally you want to get rid of territories in which probably most of the population would rather be ruled by someone else. Nowadays, it's counterproductive to try to hang on to territories of this sort.

Ukraine, after its experience of this year, and indeed, of the last few years, has an absolute right to security guarantees, which are unequivocal and credible."

You can make also, in calmer times, a perfectly convincing argument as regards Ukrainians, not as regards Crimean Tatars, that Crimea is not actually part of what you might think of as historical Ukraine, although I admit that historical Ukraine and its borders, as is actually often the case, are somewhat flexible.

As to Donbas, again, certainly the eastern Donbas…is Europe's biggest rust belt, which has now been fought over for X years. I really don't think Ukraine gains very much from recovering territories of that sort, in which nowadays in eastern Ukraine, most of the population, by definition, are likely to be pro-Russian, or they wouldn't be there any longer.

Although given the extent to which the Russians have conscripted, misused, and exploited them this year, in the course of this war, many of them, I suspect, may be doubting their allegiances.

Ukraine has enough problems rebuilding itself, without taking on this extra [problem].... Whereas I can, to some extent, swallow the argument about Crimea, as I say, above all for the poor Crimean Tatars, but also for those Ukrainians who live there…I find it much harder to make the same case for the eastern Donbas.

From a hard-headed point of view, even if one did not take onboard the advantages of offering, if ever such a thing reemerges, a potentially peaceful, moderate post-Putin Russia -- a settlement which it might think of as being remarkably generous in the circumstances and therefore possibly providing a long-term basis for peace, not just an armed truce -- Ukraine would be better off without these areas, just as the Danes were better off without bits of Schleswig Holstein, where German majorities existed.

RFE/RL: One interesting paradox that you also note in your writing is that you always believed independent Ukraine could only survive if Russia's relations with the West remained good. And Ukraine could act as a bridge between the two. I think it's fair to say now that it's no longer possible. So where does this leave us when it comes to Ukraine's future and independence?

Lieven: Well, I think it leaves us absolutely clearly with Ukraine in some kind of version of a European bloc. In other words, whatever else emerges at the end of this war, the right of a Ukrainian sovereign state to move toward the European Union and in time join it must be unequivocal.

Ukraine, after its experience of this year, and indeed, of the last few years, has an absolute right to security guarantees, which are unequivocal and credible.

God willing, at some point, as a result of the failure of Putin's policy and the…significant losses which Russia has incurred as a result, you learn your lesson and decide that playing imperial nostalgia in the 21st century is not a sensible idea."

In principle, that ought to mean the right to join NATO. If it doesn't, for whatever reason -- [for example] the peace settlement excludes that -- there might be a perfectly acceptable fallback.

If we have a genuine peace and not an armed truce, if we have a genuine peace which Russia signs and Ukraine signs, what we have at that point is a guarantee of Ukraine's territorial integrity and borders, by NATO and by Russia.

That, at least, if you want, spares Russian blushes and pride, [as] Ukraine is not formally joining NATO. But Ukraine has absolute right to have whatever armaments it wants, [although] it would be wise not to have armaments which threatened Moscow. But it has absolute right to have whatever armaments it wants to carry out whatever military exercises with whatever other powers it wants. And it has a guarantee of its territorial integrity, by NATO.

That would be, to my mind, about seven-eighths as good as becoming a member of NATO, and might actually be less unacceptable to Russia.

RFE/RL: As long as Russia continues existing with the same imperial mindset, is genuine peace possible?

Lieven: The important thing is that, God willing, at some point, as a result of the failure of Putin's policy and the…significant losses which Russia has incurred as a result, you learn your lesson and decide that playing imperial nostalgia in the 21st century is not a sensible idea.

One lives in hope that that may happen. It's not going to happen overnight and, obviously, it's not going to happen as long as this present regime is there. But it is possible to envisage something more than a cease-fire emerging.

I can imagine, in time, [that] Russians and Ukrainians are grumpily but nevertheless, on the whole, accepting a territorial settlement, which means Ukraine losing part of the Donbas and Crimea, and Russia recognizing absolute Ukrainian sovereignty and borders over everything else. I don't think it's likely.

What seems to me the likeliest scenario...is something like India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Seventy-five years, or whatever it is, since the partition of British India. Of course, India and Pakistan have not been fighting that entire time. The conflict has frozen, but it freezes, it unfreezes, and it's reached a level by now of nuclear confrontation. It could very imaginably turn extremely, devastatingly nasty….

That is the likeliest scenario: You're not going to get peace [in Ukraine]; you're going to get probably some kind of frozen conflict, a cease-fire line, and you're going to get a build-up of armaments, constant insecurity, a huge waste of resources on both sides, etc.

I fear that is the likeliest scenario. But it's not the only possible scenario. If one could imagine a real peace based on grudging acceptance of all sides of a territorial compromise, I'm absolutely convinced that would be much better for both the Ukrainians and the Russians and, indeed, the rest of the world.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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