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Interview: What Ukraine Wants From Russia May Be 'Moral,' But Is It 'Practical'?

Demonstrators hold a rally in solidarity with Crimeans in Kyiv in March 2019.
Demonstrators hold a rally in solidarity with Crimeans in Kyiv in March 2019.

Owen Matthews is a British journalist, historian, and Russia watcher. He writes regularly for Britain's The Spectator and is the author of the recently published, Overreach: The Inside Story Of Putin And Russia's War Against Ukraine. He began reporting from Russia in the mid-1990s and was the head of Newsweek's Moscow bureau between 2006 and 2012.

In an interview with Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Matthews says that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is morally right to push for justice from Russia for its unprovoked invasion of the country. But he says the likelihood is low that Ukraine will reclaim all its territory or that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be put in the dock to face charges of war crimes, arguing such goals may not be "practical," not least because Russia has a nuclear arsenal.

RFE/RL: There is a particular quote of yours I want to ask about -- one where you say that "whatever the end of this war, the Ukrainians will feel betrayed...that their land has been sacrificed to appease Putin. But unfortunately, in realistic military terms, I don't actually see any other serious outcome for this war than the eventual territorial loss for Ukraine. Because Putin has nukes and Ukraine does not." Could you elaborate on this? Why is every other scenario, including a Ukrainian victory, so unthinkable to you?

Owen Matthews: Well, the simple bottom line is that Ukraine in many important senses has already won the war. That's really clear. The question is what will the shape of that eventual final territorial settlement be. And the Ukrainians, obviously, are looking forward to several things. Firstly, the recovery of pre-2014 borders, including Crimea; in other words, restoring the full territorial integrity of Ukraine. Secondly, for a total collapse of the Russian regime and, in fact, Zelenskiy has said several times that he's not willing to negotiate with Putin because he doesn't trust Putin. And thirdly, punishment and reparations from Russia for their war crimes.

The Tavberidze 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.

All of those are actually totally reasonable, or rather, they are fair, and they are reasonable demands given that Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. My question is the practicability of those aims. And just starting with the first one, and perhaps the most controversial one, there has been a lot of discussion in international relations circles, and certainly in Western policy circles, about whether the extent of Western support should extend to a Ukrainian attack on Crimea.

[Former U.S. Secretary of State and veteran diplomat] Henry Kissinger got into a tremendous amount of trouble for suggesting that that was actually an undesirable outcome. And the reason it's an undesirable outcome or otherwise controversial thing to demand is that the war, when it gets to Crimea, becomes a different kind of war. It's not about liberating Ukrainians who do not wish to be part of Russia. It's about coercing people who do not wish to be Ukrainian to be part of Ukraine again.

And again, the issue with the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent vote is not that it was not illegal. It was certainly illegal; the annexation was illegal, the vote was illegal, that's definitely true. But actually, if you ask anybody -- even in the Ukrainian government, by the way, because I spoke to Zelenskiy back in July [2022], I spoke to many of his advisers when I was last in Kyiv -- and, frankly, I didn't find a single person who genuinely believes that the majority of the population of Crimea wish to be Ukrainian again.

RFE/RL: Wouldn't it be more precise to say a majority of the present population? Because that takes out of the equation the refugees from Crimea: the Crimean Tatars, the Ukrainian population that had to leave the peninsula.

Matthews: That's certainly true. But that's much less of a problem in Crimea than it is in Donbas, because in Donbas you have the same problem but written larger, simply because a much larger proportion of the population of the rebel Donbas republics has left. They've been depopulated by up to two-thirds and that's not the case of Crimea. Two-thirds of the population of Crimea did not leave; two-thirds of the population of Donbas did leave.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

So, what you're left with is the kind of paradox that the peacemakers faced at the end of the Bosnian War, the Yugoslav civil war, [which] is the whole moral dilemma, and it's a terrible moral dilemma to which I don't have an answer. But the moral dilemma of the people who drew up the Dayton agreement (dividing Bosnia into two self-governing entities to end the Balkans war) was: Do you recognize de facto ethnic cleansing or not?

So, when they were redrawing the borders of Republika Srpska (the mainly ethnic Serb entity) and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and indeed Croatia and so on, there were large areas [and large] numbers of [people] that have been forcibly removed by ethnic cleansing. So, do you put them back? I mean is there any way to return the status quo ante? I mean, in Bosnia, basically there was no possibility to return [to] the status quo ante, to the situation before. So therefore, you're dealing with a population who is there. And, by definition, the population who remained in, for instance, the Republika Srpska was strongly in favor of independence from Bosnia.

So that's the dilemma. You're dealing with two different issues here. One of them is the military situation on the ground: how likely it is that the Ukrainians will be able to push Russia out. And then there's a second moral issue about what does the war become, when it reaches, if and when, the Ukrainians succeed in reaching the February 24 boundaries.

And the arguments that are around this are somewhat of a dialogue of the deaf because both sides are right. The people who say that Ukraine has an absolute moral right to return to its pre-2014 borders, they are right. That's right. The Ukrainians do have a right to demand that.

However, the other people, of whom I am one, argue that pragmatically, that's actually an undesirable outcome for Ukraine on several levels. And one of the most important levels on which that is undesirable for Ukraine is firstly the fact that you are in the business of actually invading a part of Ukraine whose current population does not wish to be Ukrainian.

RFE/RL: Wait a second: "Part of Ukraine that doesn't wish to be Ukrainian"? We're approaching the realm of semantics here. Is Ukraine intending to invade Crimea or trying to take back what rightfully belongs to Ukraine?

Matthews: Well, that's the same thing. What I said was -- and I chose my words carefully -- is you're in the business of compelling parts of Ukraine whose current population does not want to be Ukrainian to be Ukrainian. You're compelling them.... I mean that you are in the business of retaking land whose current population does not wish to be Ukrainian and that's a different kind of war.

Owen Matthews
Owen Matthews

But...Vadym Prystayko, who was Zelenskiy's first foreign minister, was sacked from his job as foreign minister in 2020 for giving a very controversial interview. He's now the Ukrainian ambassador in London and doing an excellent job on that. But Prystayko was fired for daring to suggest that Ukraine will be much better off amputating Donbas like a gangrenous limb. There is no possible upside to keeping Donbas, said Prystayko. And that was heresy, because, of course, it runs against that fundamental principle that Ukraine must recover all of its lands, which, just to repeat, is morally right, but I think questions need to be asked about the practicality of it.

RFE/RL: What about lofty ideals of sovereignty, inviolability of borders, freedom of choice, the refugee issue? If, on the one hand, the current population of Crimea can decide where they want to live, and if they want to be part of Russia, is not exactly the same right beholden to the Crimean Tatars?

Matthews: Well, that's just called the tyranny of the majority, unfortunately. If part of the people of Northern Ireland, or a minority of the people of Crimea, wish to be part of a different country, the problem is that they're a minority. And in the case of the Crimean Tatars, they are a very small minority. I think Crimea is pretty clear that there is a strong majority of the population that actually wanted to join Russia. Perhaps, a large portion of the population wanted to be independent of Ukraine, which is a different issue.

And we have to acknowledge, in fact, [that] prior to 2014, [the pro-independence party] headed by the so-called subsequent head of the administration, the [so-called] prime minister of occupied Crimea (Sergei Aksyonov, head of the Russian Unity party)...was polling in the low single figures. In fact, possibly less than 1 percent. So, independence was not an issue before annexation, that's true.

But, nonetheless, I think there's a fundamental disconnect between the Crimean people's right to self-determination and any future scenario where a war will be fought to compel them to return to Ukraine. And I think that's a problem. Donbas is the same problem but with different metrics, because you have such a large proportion of the population that has fled those areas.... So, in that case, you actually have a situation where you have essentially massive ethnic cleansing that you have to deal with.

RFE/RL: So, even though you maintain what Russia did and the way Russia did it was wrong, the predominant feelings, or factors, that we need to take into account is where the remaining population of Crimea wants to live and belong to, correct? No matter whose land it is, borders, sovereignty, etc. All those international laws get sidelined by that one argument that it's up to those people to determine whether they want to live as Russians or Ukrainians. Am I correct?

Matthews: You're correct, but you dismiss the single fundamental principle on which this entire war is being fought. And that is the principle of self-determination: that the Ukrainian people have a right to not to be Russian. That's the entire principle of the war. And so, self-determination can't really be selectively applied: [As in], the Ukrainians have a right to self-determination and therefore they have an absolute right to determine what the populations of their not-very-pro-Kyiv peripheries wish. I mean this is the whole issue of, essentially, new states. Self-determination has actually been applied successfully and peacefully in Europe in the last generation. Czechoslovakia peacefully decided on a divorce. The Czechs and Slovaks actually worked that out through the principle of self-determination.

RFE/RL: I'm not denying that, but how can Ukraine fight a war of self-determination when it's not part of Russia, when it's not inside Russia's borders? Ukraine is fighting for its sovereignty, not for its self-determination, don't you agree?

Matthews: Well, no, I don't agree, because Vladimir Putin launched this invasion as a challenge to Ukraine's self-determination. He didn't agree that the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine were Ukrainian. I mean, most of the Russian parts of Ukraine rejected that and actually, as Zelenskiy himself has said several times, including his speeches in Russian, Russian is one of the languages of Ukraine, it's the language of tens of thousands of [the] defenders of [the] country.

But speaking Russian does not mean that you are not Ukrainian -- Zelenskiy has been very wise about this.... His whole message right from the beginning of his presidency was that, actually, Russian-speaking Ukrainians are our people. We need to reach out to them and integrate them and respect their concerns.... Russia used the plight of the Russian speakers of Ukraine to launch their war of aggression. But to answer your question, the entire war is fought as a challenge to Ukrainians' right to exist and self-determination.

RFE/RL: As you rightly mentioned, without Russia's involvement, Ukraine would probably be able to resolve the Donbas issue. There would probably not be the secession of Crimea, or annexation of Crimea. So, what we're dealing with here is one aggressor state that manufactures and orchestrates ethnic conflicts. And I find it at least morally doubtful that somebody would wrap it in a kind of a heraldic battle for self-determination and say, "OK, we need to think about the rights of those people who live there." And that should outweigh all other concerns.

Matthews: Right, so are we currently debating what would have happened in a world where Russia had not intervened? Or are we actually debating the future of the world where it did intervene? What I said right at the beginning is that the moral argument is one thing, the practical argument is another, because in practicality, unfortunately, politics is the art of the possible.

So, the moral argument is [that] Putin must lose the war comprehensively, Ukraine must regain all of its territory comprehensively, and Russia must be punished comprehensively. All of this, as I already said at the beginning of the conversation, those are just and reasonable demands. The question is: What is the cost of those demands? In other words, what is ultimately more conducive to the future peace, prosperity, and stability of Ukraine? Is it that maximalist position? Or is it some kind of compromise? And the problem is a gigantic one of moral hazard. And the problem of moral hazard is that you cannot allow an aggressor state to get away with anything. That is true.

RFE/RL: That's what I've been trying to say.

Matthews: That is true morally, but, unfortunately, what is the cost practically of trying to force that outcome? What is the cost practically of actually trying to push Russia all the way out of Ukraine? It's morally right, but...the problem is one of escalation, and it's something that actually was featured in the very first briefing that U.S. General Mark Milley gave to U.S. President Joe Biden back in October [2021] -- in other words, when they first got intelligence of a major Russian buildup. So, what was Milley's first question: How do we avoid World War III? And that is a more important consideration for Americans and for NATO than the moral considerations of the righteousness of the endgame of the war. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, but I'm just describing what the strategic calculations are.

It's much more important for America and for Europe to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia than it is to achieve a morally perfect endgame of the war in Ukraine. And that's sad. It's unjust. It's outrageous. But it also happens to be...the facts of NATO's priorities. Certainly, they want Russia to be weakened. The entire intent of the whole sanctions regime degrade Russia's capacity, economic capacity to fight another war like this one. But in terms of deposing the Putin regime, bringing Putin and his generals and his soldiers to justice, imposing reparations, this is already not in the realms of the achievable, unfortunately, for one incredibly simple and obvious reason -- that is that Russia is the second-largest nuclear-armed power in the world, and therefore it plays by different rules.

Now, we might not like that, we may think that's awful and reprehensible and terrible. And we may point out that Putin will never use nuclear weapons because it's suicide for himself and his country. That's all true. But clearly, we're dealing with someone who's not entirely rational, extremely unpredictable, and desperate. So, the bottom line is that, unfortunately, Russia cannot be treated like any other normal country.

RFE/RL: The bottom line seems to me is that ultimately, might makes right, which is what Russia has been claiming all along. And the only difference in perception is that when you talk about that, you're lamenting that fact, you're sad about it, you say: that's how it is, unfortunately. While Russians, on the other hand, they're very happy and jubilant about it.

Matthews: Well, it's unfortunate, I'm lamenting it because it means that Putin will not be punished. That's why I lament it. It's why NATO is so cautious about arming Ukraine with long-range ATACMS missiles, heavy armor, jets, all these things [that] if it were not for the nuclear threat, Ukraine would have won this war decisively on the battlefield long ago.

But that is the single restraining factor. And I consider that unfortunate. I would quite like the Putin regime to actually answer for its crimes. But, unfortunately, that's not achievable because of the nukes.... All I'm saying is that Russia's nuclear status changes the game, it changes what we can and cannot do to defeat it and subsequently to punish it after a military defeat.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length
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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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