On 24th February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War (which began in 2014). Whilst exact figures are difficult to establish, by May 2022, some 8 million Ukrainians had been internally displaced and some 7.7million had left the country. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations has estimated over 16,150, and expectations are that military losses are several times more. Commentators have said this is one of the greatest threats to the international peace since the outbreak of World War 2.
Simon Smith is chair of the steering committee of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House. He was previously the British ambassador to Ukraine, and Russia, South Caucasus, and Central Asia director at the Foreign Office. He has also served as British Ambassador to South Korea and to Austria- where he was also the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN and the UK Governor on the Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In this interview I speak to Simon Smith CMG about the history of the Russia-Ukraine War, Russia’s role in the world, how this war could play out, and what it means for international peace and order.
Q: What has been Russia’s place in the world since World War 2?
[Simon Smith]: You can divide much of the period since World War 2 into two distinct periods, a cold-war, and a post-cold war. We are now entering a third period, what people are beginning to call a new cold war. The role of Russia in those 3 periods was different. For much of the 1940s to 1960s, you saw Russia as a country very conscious that its World War 2 allies had turned, basically, into enemies in the cold war. Russia’s role was set in the context of what was (then) a confrontational world order. It was a period in which I think many of the international issues which Russia was confronting were seen through the prism of opposing the ‘west.’
Following the end of the Cold War, things became much more varied and less predictable. You found a period where it was possible to do a lot of things in cooperation with Russia. At this point, Russia was also a permanent member of the UN Security Council which meant that – whether people liked it or not – Russia had a great deal of weight and influence in deciding big international questions. It was clear that a cooperative way of dealing with Russia was worth investing in. I worked in Vienna for 5 years, representing Britain at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By and large, the quality of cooperation with Russia around how we confronted the Iranian nuclear threat was pretty good. There were of course moments it slipped out of gear, where Russians went into opportunist mode to look at what they could do to encourage the Iranians to love them a little bit more… but it was an example of a period where cooperation was possible.
More recently, you have a Russia which has- again- put itself way offside of a lot of the mainstream assumptions about how to approach international affairs. You have a Russia which does not engage on the basis of speaking honestly and directly. You are also seeing the Russian ‘knee-jerk’ reactions where the cold war antagonisms are returning… that sense that if the West supports something, Russia must de-facto disagree with it. As the Russians now often see it, if anything in the world is going wrong, it is de-facto, the fault of the West.
Q: Why does Russia feel so isolated on the global stage?
[Simon Smith]: I was working in Russia from 1998-2002 – this was the period which covered the last 2 years of Yeltsin’s Presidency, and the first two years of Putin’s. Around 2000, I remember seeing this from the perspective of working in Moscow. There were serious, influential economists who were saying that Russia needed to get closer to the European Union, and even if EU membership wasn’t feasible, Russia could do themselves, and the world, a lot of good by adopting the entire EU acquis as a model for its own economic reform. The positive side of the European Union’s transformational agenda was recognized in Russia and people of influence, people who were listened to in government, were saying that it would do Russia good to be closer to the European Union… that it would do the country a lot of good if they shaped their economy on the basis of proper rules not opportunism, on the protection of competition not on the stamping-out of competition. You also had this extraordinary episode where Putin is on record being asked a question, ‘President Putin, do you think Russia could ever join NATO?’ to which he replied, ‘Why not?!’ – what he actually said was ‘why not…’ provided that Russia could be a fully-fledged partner in NATO, and provided that the countries of NATO respected Russia’s interests, well not even that – he said ‘provided Russia’s interests are taken into account, then why not?’[Quotation is from an article in the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, July 3 2000]
We’ve come a long way from that positive thinking aloud, at the very least about how Russia might construct cooperative relationships with organisations like the EU and NATO. But I think where it kind of rolls off the road fairly quickly after that is when the ideologues in the Moscow Kremlin decide that Russia will only work if it’s a one-party state. And again, I’m not mischaracterizing the project in Russia. I’ve sat in front of the chief ideologue in the Moscow Kremlin, and I remember him saying to us in so many words, that ‘you cannot govern Russia unless you have a one-party state: Our job in the Kremlin here and now, is not to recreate the communist party, but it’s to recreate the one party which will be the natural choice’. He didn’t say it would be the only choice, (but I think that’s what he meant), of the Russian electorate. The Kremlin’s message to the Russian people would be ‘we’ve created this party for you, now it’s for you to love it and vote for it, and we will then have no instability’. But of course the unsaid part of that was that Russia would have a political space which did not allow any competition.
Q: Was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inevitable?
[Simon Smith]: I don’t think it was inevitable until the point where the tanks started rolling-in. It was unstoppable at that point… But 20 years ago, would we have realised this was going to happen? My sense would be absolutely not. I say this as someone who participated in a really sincere effort to reach-out to Russia, to include Russia in the cooperative mechanisms that work for us. We didn’t – and we don’t – want Russia to be isolated from these mechanisms, rather we want Russia to be a part of them, to be part of the decision making. But as early as 2005, I recall chairing a lot of working-level meetings with and about Russia in the context of Britain’s last presidency of the European Union. It was already by that time terrifically unrewarding work trying to get Russia to buy into invitations to cooperate; by that point, they had developed a strongly resistant attitude to two major principles of the European Union – firstly, that it respects the voice of small countries (Russia, by comparison, has a philosophy of government whereby it’s only the big guys who really count, they have force, and the little guys have to put up with it…). This was the sense I got of Russia’s approach at the United Nations as well, not only in the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions, but in the broader context as well. Russia always seemed to me to have a problem accepting that you have to listen to the voice of smaller countries. Russia often seemed simply to assume that you get what you want if you’re bigger, and more powerful.
[Vikas: has the cyber-domain of misinformation fed into this?]
[Simon Smith]: I’m afraid that it’s not just Russia where the extraordinary expansion of communications and influencing technologies have enabled misinformation and cyber conflict. That opportunity has to a significant extent also been seized in the UK, USA and many other places where honesty and evidence-based argument have been suppressed or dispensed with. I personally think this is a very serious worry for all of us and this tendency to argue without evidence and integrity has certainly made it easier for Putin to invent the basis for his war on Ukraine.
It’s also important to understand how Russia looks at its own security. Did Russia feel under so much stress and pressure that if nothing changed, it would be inevitable that they would need to reach for this tactic (invading Ukraine)? Was it Russia’s security anxieties that made war inevitable? I would answer no – because those anxieties have been largely invented as an answer to an internal threat Putin was facing. He knew the Russian people have been getting fed-up of Putinism, and that has to be a major factor in the invention of this external threat.
Q: Could Russia lose control of this conflict?
[Simon Smith]: The conflict could certainly continue to go in ways that Putin does not wish for it to go (it already has done). Russia had a starting vision that Ukraine would be successfully occupied in 3 days, and we know that’s gone very badly wrong for Putin. As for whether this means the conflict could get out of control; I think there’s much less risk of that. We’ve seen hardline critics from within Russia saying that Putin isn’t going far enough… isn’t being brutal enough… isn’t reaching for high impact weapons and military options… but in that sense, I think Putin will retain control of the weapons and tactics Russia uses. Putin and his team will stay in control of what happens in their war.
It could however escalate into a situation in which actions and strategies which are much more difficult for us in countries supporting Ukraine, (and for Ukraine itself), to deal with.
Q: Could we see the use in this conflict of weapons of mass destruction?
[Simon Smith]: If weapons of mass destructions are used by the Russian Federation in its war against Ukraine, it will be as a result of a decision Putin and the Russian leadership have made. On the whole, I’m of the view that it would be foolish to say the threat is unrealistic, it would be unwise to say it’s impossible for this to escalate into nuclear conflict, but it is improbable. Putin badly miscalculated his chances of quick success in launching his 2022 invasion of Ukraine. But I think he will make a much sounder calculation of the costs to him of taking the action of using WMD.
When Putin invaded in February 2022, we made the mistake of thinking that Putin’s of this conflict would be one made by a “reasonable person”. There are some very worrying elements of intelligence suggesting he has been very seriously out of touch… isolated from reality… and that he’s only listening to those telling him what he wants to hear. Against this background, I think the calculations he made, were made at absolutely face value. I think he really did believe he could conquer Ukraine in 3 days. But in contrast to his woeful lack of knowledge of conditions in Ukraine (and his lack of knowledge – because nobody dared tell him – of the in adequacies of his army) he will have a sounder appreciation of the potential consequences to him of using a nuclear weapon. In that sense, I think we can draw comfort from telling ourselves that the power of nuclear deterrence remains in place.
Q: Will the Russia x Ukraine war create more isolationism?
[Simon Smith]: Any costly war such as this one is bound to raise questions in the mind of lots of countries that it affects. Countries will often raise the question of whether they are better off staying to one side, saying that a given conflict has nothing to do with them. You have the precedent of the isolationism we saw in the United States in the 1930s, and how many in the electorate of the United States were reluctant to get involved in World War 2. I see this possibility looming even larger if the next-president of the United States is a Donald Trump version-2. It could be in that case that a powerful message gets pushed to the American populous that says, ‘that war has nothing to do with us, we’re damaging ourselves by being party to it, we must withdraw inside and isolate…’
We’re seeing the risk of Ukraine fatigue emerging… The determination to recognise the appalling nature of Putin’s war has so far been very strong in Europe and America, and among Asian region allies such as Japan and Australia. But as the war goes on those questions are likely to be raised more insistently: …. What do we gain from this? How do we stop these painful costs we’re bearing from war?
But the consequences of the war could also cement the determination of the international community to sustain cooperation in frustrating Putin’s war aims. We might see this particularly in the way countries cooperate to tackle the energy challenges that we are seeing. I think it could – and I hope it does – bring a new determination to get to a world without fossil fuels as quickly as we can. I’m astonished at how few governments have said, ‘yes, we have energy problems coming down the line, but it’s doubly-important therefore for us to not forget that we’re facing absolute disaster if we fail to contain global warming to an increase in temperature to a rise of below 2 degrees Celsius.”
Q: Do people understand how fragile peace really is?
[Simon Smith]: For many (but not all) people in Europe, this is the first and nearest big, serious, land-grabbing war that they’ve experienced. Sadly, that is not the case for many people across the world. There is something of an empathy factor at work here. I too wish I had a more powerfully developed sense of empathy around conflicts that break out in places I’ve never been to, but sadly, it sometimes only hits home with brutal directness when it’s a place you’ve worked, when it’s a place and people you know… that’s when you realise fully how terrible it is …. And how unnecessary.
We overlook how fragile peace is. We put ourselves into situations where we think, ‘no, this could not possibly happen again, reason will prevail…’ – but perhaps it takes a war this close to us to realise that peace requires effort.
I wonder, a lot, about the time I spent in Ukraine, particularly in 2013/2014, when the first Russian invasion of Ukraine happened, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea. And I do wonder sometimes whether once again then we were doing too much of the, ‘…look a reasonable person would not be doing this, what we have here is a sort of effort by Putin to partially ruin Ukraine, but we can find ways of making sure that fails…’ In many respects we did find ways of making sure that particular effort did fail. Putin’s aim in 2014 was to damage Ukraine so critically that it failed to operate as a proper sovereign state. He wanted to turn Ukraine into a weakened, failed state, and he didn’t succeed in that. Ukraine was very much alive and well by 2022, it was not well in some senses but in many other senses it had astonishingly survived this sustained assault that Putin had inflicted on Ukraine over those 8 years from 2014 to 2022.
Our instinct I think should have been to try harder – to be more forceful – to make sure that Russia realised that the persistent effort to render a sovereign state of 45 million people, in the middle of Europe, a failure and to wreck-it, would not to be tolerated. I wonder whether that’s a failure of our past engagement.
Q: What gives you hope for the future?
[Simon Smith]: I really did feel that Britain’s presiding role at COP26 gave us diplomats a real sense of purpose. It gave us a sense that things were really stirring on the international front, that effective multi-lateral diplomacy was taking place. I felt uncomfortable many times in my career in multilateral diplomacy. I sometimes felt that what I was instructed to do was in effect simply promoting the interests and objectives of rich countries, at the expense of poor countries. I ended up, in my 5 years working in multilateral diplomacy, working in various international organisations thinking that this way of working has to change if we are going to have a world that’s worth living in, in the future. But as I participated in the effort to make COP26 a success, and as across the globe more and more countries announced commitment to net-zero 2050 targets, it really felt as though governments and businesses were finally getting it.
There is a maxim; in the cemetery we are all equal.
If we don’t do something about this problem of climate change, we are all going to end up in one cemetery or another soon. This is a huge issue, a massive threat to our future. But I genuinely believe it’s also a huge opportunity to change gear in the way we collaborate internationally in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual support.