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David Patrikarakos: In Ukraine, A 'Long Phase Of Frozen Conflict' Lies Ahead

British journalist David Patrikarakos (file photo)
British journalist David Patrikarakos (file photo)

RFE/RL's Georgian Service spoke to David Patrikarakos, a British journalist and contributing editor at UnHerd, who has recently been on the ground reporting from Ukraine.

His second book, War In 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict In The Twenty-First Century, drew partly from Patrikarakos's time embedded with forces in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Patrikarakos, who has previously contributed to RFE/RL's English website, says the current war is only in its early stages and "a long phase of frozen conflict" is likely ahead.

RFE/RL: If the theater of war is an idiom to go by, which act are we watching now?

David Patrikarakos: I see this as lasting for a very long time. I think the war is still in the early stages, unfortunately. The beginning was about whether Ukraine would completely fold -- it did not. Now we're going into the end of the beginning of what I think is a long phase of frozen conflict.

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It just seems like it's the Donbas playbook writ large. You now have the land bridge all the way down to Crimea. You throw in your rubles and your Russian passports. The difference there is that they didn't completely flatten cities -- right now in Mariupol, the remaining population are very unlikely to want to be part of any kind of Russian state given what's happened.

So are you going to do what [Soviet leader Josef] Stalin did and just repopulate those areas with people from Russia proper? Either way, it's a frozen conflict now.

I don't think the Russians can get a total military victory now in Ukraine. I think that's gone. We get to the stage -- which depends on what kind of weaponry comes in -- where the Russians cannot take any more territory, because the Ukrainians will push them back and the Ukrainians cannot launch counteroffensives anymore because the Russians will push them back. And once we reach that equilibrium, then I guess that's where things stay, unless something changes on both sides.

Now, if you're the Kremlin, and you want to try to defeat Ukraine now, then clearly you're not going to be able to march to Kyiv. But maybe what you can do is strangle [Ukraine] economically over months and years. Which would be a partial victory for them -- if they don't want to join us, then you make sure they don't join anyone else.

RFE/RL: Let's look at territorial gains. So Putin has more land than he had before February 24. Some of those lands contain Europe's second-largest known reserves of natural gas. He's got uncontested control of the Azov Sea coastline. He's got the vaunted land bridge to Crimea. And if he retains all that, can he really be considered a loser in real political terms?

Patrikarakos: It depends on what his objectives were. If your objectives were to take the whole of Ukraine and annex it to Russia, then yes, [he is a loser]. Obviously, he's got a land bridge to Crimea. So I guess that's a bonus. But at what cost? Thirty thousand Russian soldiers dead.

RFE/RL: Does he care, do you think?

Patrikarakos: Probably not about the soldiers, but [for] Russia's deterrence as a strong power, probably. That's kind of vital to Russia in Syria and places like that. I just don't really think you can see Ukraine as a victory for Russia, really. Their entire reputation as a super military superpower has been just destroyed. Their army is an army of serfs [that] doesn't have adequate rations.

RFE/RL: "Millions of people around the world will die because these ports are being blocked." That's what David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, has said. Is Putin orchestrating Russia's own makeshift Holodomor on a worldwide scale?

Patrikarakos: I don't think it's there yet. We could have serious food security issues come July -- hunger, not famine. This is going to be a worry…I wouldn't trust Russian security guarantees, to be honest. But something's going to have to be done, I think, given the level of worldwide pressure here. At the end of June, there comes a new crop of grain, which will make it even worse [than] now, because they'll have to do something with that.

RFE/RL: Putin is demanding easing sanctions to cooperate on this.

Patrikarakos: As he would, because I mean that's leverage for him. It stands to reason that he's doing that.

RFE/RL: Stands to reason that it should be done?

Patrikarakos: I don't know. I mean, I would rather not ease the sanctions on Putin. I think the pressure should be brought to open the harbors for humanitarian reasons; the international [system] needs to get that grain out. But let's see, I mean, it may well be that they have no choice. This depends how firm they can stand in the face of food security issues, which are going to come online really in the next month or so.

RFE/RL: As a journalist, do you see the Ukraine war narrative in the West fading?

Patrikarakos: The news cycles are going to fade, Ukraine is going to drift out of the news, it already is, and things are going to move on. And that's what the Russians are waiting for. They're hoping that a lot of this stuff will die down, and then in a few months people start to visit Russia again, things can go back, if not to normal, at least 20 percent of the [problems] may fall away.

I think some of the companies may go back in. I think that's all [Putin] is banking on -- and that's the great danger for Ukraine. And unfortunately there's nothing you can do about it; the news cycle will eventually move on. People will eventually get fatigued about what is fundamentally an unpleasant subject. So I think, yes, it's a big problem for [journalists] now, for Ukraine.

RFE/RL: You have said Ukraine is perennially cursed by its geography. If that is the standard to go by, what can be said about Georgia?

Patrikarakos: Well, Georgia is equally unfortunate, maybe more because it's smaller -- [just like] all the countries around Russia who have had to live with Russia, Russian imperialism, almost the entirety of their existence. It's to a degree a curse, as you see throughout history. It's extremely unfortunate what's happened to Georgia [in 2008]; it is a wonderful country. I think all those countries are cursed by geography. Britain is blessed by geography. The United States is probably more blessed than anyone by geography. And countries like Ukraine and Georgia are in an unfortunate position, although it does force them to become more creative and resilient, as they know they have a problem.

RFE/RL: What does this war spell for post-Soviet countries with pro-Western aspirations but still without a NATO umbrella?

Patrikarakos: Seems to me that if you're Georgia or Moldova, you've got to look at this and be happy to see the Russian Army get absolutely chewed up, right. If Ukraine had fallen in three days, like Putin's ass-lickers told him it would, he'd be halfway to Georgia and Moldova, because why wouldn't he?

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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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