Janusz Bugajski: “Ukraine won’t be in a neutral paradise. It will be in a neutral battlefield”
A leading foreign policy specialist and regular contributor to foreign policy reports prepared for the U.S. Congress, Janusz Bugajski speaks in an interview for The Ukrainian Week about why Ukraine cannot remain neutral, why Serbia risks turning into a new source of instability in the Balkan region and what challenges European countries face due to the geopolitical ambitions of Putin’s Russia.
U.W.: You are in a delegation visiting Ukraine. What are its basic objectives?
The delegation was put together by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. The idea is to initiate dialogue between NGOs in America, Washington, and non-governmental institutions here in Kyiv and to come up with some ideas: first of all, an appraisal of where Ukraine stands and second, to come up with some recommendations on what Ukraine should be doing to help itself. As I said, we established four working groups: foreign policy, security, energy and culture to look at ways in which we could provide recommendations for Ukraine to help improve its policy and improve to meet international standards. The one I’m dealing with is on foreign policy. It is led by [former] Ambassador Steven Pifer. In foreign policy, we focused on several different relationships: with the European Union, the United States, NATO, the OSCE – which Ukraine will chair next year – and Russia.
We came up with ideas, some of which have been heard before, but which are worth repeating. The basic fact is that Ukraine now stands at a major crossroads and is approaching a moment of decision: whether it will try and join Western institutions in terms of meeting standards for the Association Agreement, for free trade with the European Union and eventual inclusion in the EU, or if it will go in a different direction. With Putin’s return, Russia is pushing for the Customs Union, the Eurasian Economic Union and even some kind of political confederation.
I don't think Ukraine can simply say it is neutral. It cannot stand aside. There is no third way. It needs to go in a definite direction. So the idea is to try and help Ukraine make the right decisions for its own benefit, for its own self-interest.
U.W.: Do you think that the current position of Ukraine, which has driven itself into a corner, would lead it into Russia’s hands? Or will the European Union and global powers use some instruments to influence this situation with Ukraine?
I think the Ukrainian government is causing self-inflicted wounds. Disqualified from the European Union, disqualified from meeting the targets leading to a free-trade agreement and the Association Agreement. On the other hand, the Yanukovych government does not want to live too close to Russia, because it knows it will become a province of Russia. In the Russia-Belarus union, we see that Russia is trying to turn Belarus into a kind of province, or oblast, of the Russian Federation. Ukraine certainly does not want this – including, I would think, the Ukrainian elites from Donetsk. Because this means a reduction of political power and, second, the potential loss of economic power. So Ukraine’s problem will then be that it will not be heading toward the European Union and will be under constant pressure from Russia, which will generate conflict within the Ukrainian elite. So you see, Ukraine will not be in this neutral paradise. It will be in a neutral battleground. I should point out that I am expressing my own views here, not those of the group as a whole.
U.W.: Do you think that Ukraine's situation is much different from that of Belarus?
It is different for several reasons. Belarus has a very centralised post-Soviet system, both economically and politically. It does not have the strong sense of national identity that a lot of Ukrainians have – not all Ukrainians but a lot of them, particularly in western and central Ukraine. It doesn’t have the aspiration that Ukraine has – to be part of the European mainstream. And it is being persistently penetrated and manipulated by Moscow – much more than Ukraine is. So for those reasons I think the two are different. However, you can see a process here. If the current government were to continue some of its policies – it is already receiving criticism of being like Belarus. In other words, the danger is the Belarusianisation of Ukraine under the government that Ukraine currently has. But I can’t say that Ukraine is like Belarus right now – visit them each and you will see that they are two different countries.
U.W.: Will you have meetings with any Ukrainian politicians or government officials during your visit?
We have personal meetings with different officials. Officials have visited Washington at different times. My organisation periodically hosts Ukrainian officials who have good contacts with the embassy. But the purpose at the moment is not so much to talk to the officials. We are here to finalise our papers, to talk eye-to-eye with our Ukrainian counterparts here in Kyiv, to talk to the press as well, to talk to the EU delegation here and the U.S. Embassy, as well as to have private meetings to get as much information as possible on what is going on. The next step will be to develop these papers and issue them. And then there is an action plan for talking to Ukrainian officials about some of the recommendations.
U.W.: What is your appraisal of the position taken by Tomislav Nikolic, the newly elected right-wing leader of Serbia? He says he is moving the country toward the European Union while still maintaining good relations with Russia.
That is a good question. As you know, Nikolic used to be one of Slobodan Milosevic’s deputy prime ministers and he has made some very strong statements against NATO, against the United States and in favour of Russia. At one point he said he would rather join Russia than the European Union. But in the past few years he has moved more to the centre, at least rhetorically. He wants Serbia to be a part of the European Union, though not of NATO, but he still wants a very close relationship with Russia.
I think it is unfortunate that his first foreign visit was to Moscow. If anything, I think his first foreign visit should have been to Kyiv to find out what living with Moscow is like. (laughs) Even better, he could have gone to Brussels to be told exactly what he needs to do in order to be able to join, because Serbia has candidate status with the European Union. It is now waiting for an accession agreement, and then it will start the process of joining the European Union. Unfortunately, the big danger in Serbia is that Nikolic beat Tadic in the elections on the promise that he would improve the economy. That is a problem because Serbia’s economy is not going to improve overnight, and some of his policies, such as bigger taxation, are going to discourage business. So the economy may deteriorate even further, also at a time when the EU’s economy is also not doing very well. That would mean that he may reach for nationalism to distract people from economic problems. And the nationalist issues he could reach for would be over Kosovo, over Bosnia and Herzegovina, over Montenegro and even over Croatia. And this would cause a reaction. So he could potentially – I’m not saying that it’s going to happen – be a source of instability in the region. Russia would try to exploit that to its advantage, because Russia has always used countries or regions in countries that are against a NATO presence or an American presence and, I would even say, the European Union's presence. It exploits these countries to its advantage to have allies in a region where it would otherwise have no influence. And it helps to create problems, as it has done over Kosovo by blocking Kosovo’s progress as an independent state. It has created problems in Bosnia, because it favours an entity that prevents Bosnia from being an integrated state. So Nikolic could contribute, with Russia’s assistance, to destabilising the Balkans or creating space for Russian inroads into the Balkans in energy, banking, economic, political, security, intelligence and other kinds of influence.
U.W.: What other European countries can Russia rely on to increase its influence on the continent?
Serbia would be the main one. They’ve tried with Bulgaria, because Bulgaria has traditionally been much closer. Let’s put it this way. While Yugoslav Serbian communism broke with Russia, Serbian nationalists have always been closer to Russia. In the Bulgarian case, both the nationalists and the communists have been closer to Russia. However, the government at the moment, the Borisov government, has drawn a line and has looked at all these projects where Russia has tried to gain influence – like here through energy, a nuclear power plant, the Burgas–Alexandroupoli pipeline and South Stream. They came to the conclusion that Bulgaria was being cheated by the Russians and that the Russians were trying to implant their interests and purchase control over the Bulgarian energy infrastructure. So they’ve distanced themselves. They want more of an open, diversified energy stream through Bulgaria, while Serbia is locking itself more, I think, into Russia’s South Stream project.
There may be more pressure on countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina or Macedonia which faces internal unrest because of the Albanian factor. The situation depends on whether any pipeline goes east to west to the Adriatic Sea. There are other vulnerable countries if you look at the energy sector: Hungary has been under a lot of pressure; Slovakia is heavily dependent on Russian gas. As parts of the old Soviet bloc, these countries still have these old-boy networks and former communist networks. And Russia does one thing that American and other Western companies won’t do: they give you money under the table. Unfortunately, greed is still a factor. Just because you are a part of Europe does not mean you are not greedy. They corrupt politicians and they corrupt businesses. This is how Russia operates in the region.
U.W.: In your book Cold Peace, you used the term “new Russian imperialism”. What risks do the ambitions of the Putin government pose for European countries?
I called it new imperialism because it does not use the traditional instruments. In other words, the Russians no longer want to necessarily control a territory, determine its ideology and its political structure. That is, it’s not totalitarian anymore – it’s selective control. What they really want to control is foreign policy decisions, security decisions and economic decisions. These are the three key areas for Russia. With regard to Europe, Russia has never seen Europe as a coherent project. And to prevent Europe from emerging as a major foreign security player, it has favoured certain key countries – Germany, France and Italy in particular – in order to attract business and politics that’s favourable towards Russia. And that prevents a unified European response to Russia’s actions along its borders.
With regard to Central and Eastern Europe, the Russians are very suspicious. The Baltic states, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic – these countries traditionally lived under a Russian imperial model. And they do want Europe to be a stronger, more united union to oppose Russia’s security, foreign policy and economic interests that undermine their national interests. With Putin coming back, Russia is re-entering the era of what I call re-integration. They want to re-integrate much of the former Soviet Union – not as such, but as some kind of Russian hall of power. That’s why they focus on this multipolarity business. They see Russia as the centre of attraction, or a centre of the orbits of other countries around it. And that includes most of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics like Ukraine.
Regarding the European Union, Russia is convinced that it is weak and it will try to continue to exploit it and benefit from divisions within it.
U.W.: What is your evaluation of the role Turkey plays in the Balkan region?
Turkey has the no-neighbourhood problems policy. In the Balkan region in particular, there is a sense among some that Turkey is trying to impose some kind of neo-Ottomanism. In other words, where the European Union hasn’t fully committed itself or, let’s say, made progress in bringing these countries to the EU and where America is disengaging because it is involved in other parts of the world, Turkey is moving culturally, economically and informationally into a region that was part of the Ottoman Empire. But there are problems. For one, Turkey traditionally has better relations with the Muslim countries – with Bosnia, with Albania, really with Macedonia but that’s for a slightly different reason (because of Greece). But I think there is still lingering suspicion in the Balkans: we don’t want to be a part of some kind of Turkish sphere of influence – first, because this would retard our progress towards the European Union and second, because it may create conflicts with our non-Muslim neighbours (they have to live together in places like Macedonia, Bosnia and so on). So this could create regional rifts. And third, there is a sense that if Turkey itself begins to radicalise and become more Islamic, this would send a very negative influence throughout the whole region. If Turkey begins to support more radical, Islamic elements in the Balkans, this would be negative. This is in a region which has traditionally had enormous religious tolerance. Muslims in Bosnia – you sit down and drink with them. You celebrate each other’s religious ceremonies. In Albania, Muslims marry the Orthodox and the Catholics. So there is a tradition of tolerance. And if that is broken by radical Islamic influences, then that would be a negative development for the Balkans. However, Turkey can play a good role if it limits the Wahhabi and the Salafi influence from the Middle East coming to the Balkans. In other words, if Islamism is interpreted through the Turkish moderate Sunni model, as it has traditionally been in the Balkans, that would be positive. A lot depends on what happens in the Turkish political scene. In general, I think that Turkish influence can be positive, but there is still lingering suspicion of Turkey as a former imperial power in the region.
U.W.: What is the role of America’s European allies in NATO’s strategy, considering that NATO plans to pull out from Afghanistan? Can European allies increase their influence on America’s foreign policy strategy?
It’s not only about Afghanistan. Libya has demonstrated that the United States will not necessarily always take the lead on an international mission. I think that Washington deliberately left it to the Europeans and let them handle this crisis. And I think this is probably a good step, because France, Germany and the UK stepped up. They did conduct most of the bombing raids, although a lot of the supplies, logistics and intelligence came from the United States. But the U.S. didn’t lead, and this is the key.
Now the question is: Will this become a model for the future? In other words, if there are other interventions (Syria is down the road), they may be not so much NATO or American intervention but by some other coalition of the willing. Remember that under George Bush? This term may come back again. In other words, not necessarily all of NATO, because not all of NATO may agree or have the capabilities, resources or public support. But some nearby countries – perhaps Turkey, Greece or other countries in the Mediterranean that feel more directly threatened – may put together some kind of multinational force and provide some kind of assistance against Assad. It’s possible.
In the future, America will probably only become involved if there is a crisis that has major regional ramifications, for example in Iran. If there is a crisis in Iran, I simply cannot imagine America standing aside and letting Europe handle it. Or it may be in some other part of the world such as the Far East or Korea, other areas that are vital to American interests. Troops are already there and are vital to the stability and security in the Far East, to allies like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. So those areas will be America-led, but again there may be smaller operations with humanitarian aid, peacemaking efforts, no-fly zone enforcement, anti-piracy measures and whatever else is there to help various rebels and this may be conducted by smaller coalitions within NATO but also by bringing in countries from outside NATO. America does not have the appetite to be involved in so many military missions.
U.W.: Could you comment on NATO’s future? The last NATO summit in Chicago was described as the last non-enlargement summit.
Hillary Clinton said this, although it was not said when the next summit is going to be. Probably in two years, but we don’t know exactly when and where. Remember there are four countries that are now aspirants: Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Georgia. Georgia has now joined this group, and that is a big success for the country. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to be invited to the next summit. What it does mean is that there is going to be more focus on enlargement. I think this is what Clinton meant: more focus on enlargement at the next summit – whether issuing a membership action plan or something else for Georgia, maybe finally resolving this Greek-Macedonian dispute over the name so Macedonia can be invited. If NATO decides that individual countries can come in on their merit, not as a group, then Montenegro will probably be invited. It’s a small country – 600,000 people, as in a medium-size European city. It is strategically well-located on the Adriatic. They are committed, have a stable political system and have done a lot of civil management reforms. They have a small army and do not require a lot of resources. They have specialty niches in mountain warfare, etc. I think that Montenegro has demonstrated that if NATO continues to enlarge and grow, it could well be invited at the next summit. Bosnia will wait – that won't happen any time soon. The bigger question is about Georgia. As I’ve said, Georgia has made a lot of progress. But Russia is determined to prevent Georgia from moving into NATO and into any Western organisation, quite frankly – including the European Union. In the next two years, Georgia faces elections, parliamentary and presidential. It faces a campaign by a Russia-sponsored oligarch against Saakashvili. It faces major tests in terms of the future of its occupied territories and potential overflow of conflicts in the Northern Caucasus. There are increasing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which obviously severely affects Georgia. So given those conditions – Russia’s opposition to membership, regional instability and domestic uncertainty – would Georgia be invited in two years? It’s too early to tell.
U.W.: What changes in the political configuration could provoke a crisis of global power? How has America’s role changed? What do you think about the shift of power from the West to the East?
America is still the strongest global power, but it’s global reach is becoming restricted. In other words, it cannot form military missions as it used to even 5-10 years ago. It is overstretched, faces huge budgetary costs, falling public opinion of military intervention overseas and even the opposition of some allies to more intervention. However, America still plays a vital global role, because without American involvement there is more opportunity for global chaos. In other words, there will be many actors fighting over resources: water, land, oil, gas, you name it. As a result, America’s role continues to be important, but for it to remain so for another 15-20 years, America has to reinvigorate, reinvent itself. It has to get its own health in order. The strength of any country depends on its domestic economy and its performance. So it has to strengthen economically, and politically it has to have more consensual foreign policy, as well as domestic policy. It has to deal with its national debt. It has to revive the economy in terms of job creation, growth and so on. The question is, of course: Over how long a period? Some say America is in decline. I would argue that America is sort of stagnant at the moment. There is some decline, but it is still above the level of any other country. There is no other country that can replace America in terms of the role it plays. And for certain key regions, as I’ve mentioned – Europe, the Far East and even the Middle East – America’s involvement is a positive, stabilising factor. Without that, I think you would have more conflict. So it is a more complex world. And I wouldn’t even call it multipolar. I would call it non-polar. And that in a way makes it more chaotic, more dangerous, more unpredictable – and America will still remain a key factor. But the other part of it is that America has to play this role with our allies, has to have solid alliances in Europe, Asia and even Eurasia. If Russia can become a more, let’s say, normal country that can limit its own ambitions, live within its means and play a more constructive role regionally, Russia can also become a constructive partner for the United States.
U.W.: How may America’s foreign policy change after the presidential election?
The race is very tight. A major thing is what happens between now and the elections. Will the economy pick up, stagnate or decline? Will job figures improve or worsen? All of this has a direct impact on the electorate. They vote not over a two- to three-year policy. They vote over the immediate future.
Romney has been a bit of an unknown factor. He is not a politician as such. He comes from business. He was a governor at one point, but he doesn’t have a lot of foreign policy experience. Because of the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and the killing of Bin Laden, Obama`s ratings on foreign policy are quite high. And if the economy starts to go down, Obama, I think, will be out. If the economy stabilises or goes up, then Romney will go out. That’s the way I put it. But it’s much too early to make a prediction.
U.W.: What will the situation be like in Asia after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan?
No-one has been able to control Afghanistan, not even the Afghanis. If Afghanistan cannot control its own country, how can an outside power do so? The question is what will happen when Americans withdraw. We know what happened when Russia withdrew. We had a very radical regime and a civil war in the country, basically. Now they have an even worse situation with the government which does not control much beyond Kabul. We have increasing tribal, ethnic, regional divisions and terrorism that spreads further afield. But an even bigger danger is if Afghanistan starts to fracture and certain ethnic groups want to join the neighbouring countries – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. It’s separatist tribalism. You may have a fracture which could then provoke, especially in the Fergana Valley, a split in a very complex ethnic mix between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. So the negative Afghan impact would be terrorism, Taliban and al-Qaeda influence, the potential break-up of the state which could be replicated in neighbouring countries and, potentially, a bigger regional war in which Russia and China may come forward. So what does America do at this point after being there and leaving again? There is a known Chinese proverb: May you get what you wish for. Russia wishes for an American withdrawal. So let’s see if they get what they wish for.
Janusz Bugajski is senior associate in the Europe Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He has served as a consultant for various U.S. organisations and government agencies and testifies regularly before the U.S. Congress. He chairs the South-Central Europe area studies program at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State. Bugajski is a regular contributor to various U.S. and European newspapers and journals. His recent books include America’s New European Allies (2009); Expanding Eurasia: Russia’s European Ambitions (2008); Atlantic Bridges: America’s New European Allies, with Ilona Teleki (2007), Cold Peace: Russia’s New Imperialism (2004), and Political Parties of Eastern Europe: A Guide to Politics in the Post-Communist Era (2002).