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Can Russia be stopped?

Tensions are rising between Russia and the West. Can an invasion of Ukraine and an international war be avoided? Political scientist and Russia expert Hans Oversloot warns of the consequences if the West chooses a collision course. ‘Offer Russia a dignified exit strategy.’

Oversloot is irritated by the Western world’s simplistic view of Russia as the bogeyman. In his book De verwoestingen van Rusland (The Devastation of Russia, 2017), he explains how Western countries are too eager to label Russia as the instigator and are much less inclined to look at their own role. And we still are, he says in an interview about the current situation.  

What do you think the probability is of an international war with Russia?

‘It’s hard to talk in terms of odds. It’s not a horse race, but it will become problematic if the American collision course is continued. The message now is: we will stand firm with Ukraine and won’t give Russia a chance of a so-called dignified retreat. In effect, President Biden is saying to Russia: you’re bluffing; go ahead and show your cards. Then Putin can do one of two things: he can choose to fight or will have to slink off with his tail between his legs. If at all possible, Russia should be given the chance of an exit strategy, even if they were the ones who started it.’ 

‘Start the negotiations with what you did agree on.’ 

What should diplomacy focus on?

‘Negotiators could focus more heavily on the Minsk Protocol, which was drawn up in 2014 and 2015. Russia and Ukraine agreed on it, but it was never actually implemented. The Protocol is about the status of the breakaway Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the possibility of more autonomy for the dominant Russian-speaking parts. You could say that this is the federalisation of Ukraine and therefore a bad sell. But you can begin the negotiations with what you did agree on.’ 

Many think that Putin’s aggression in Eastern and Central Europe can only be stopped if NATO also flexes its muscles.

‘That might well be, but can NATO also strike? I sometimes fail to understand this flippancy. As if it’s a frischer, fröhlicher Krieg [many in 1914 thought the war would be short and sweet, ed.] and it’s time to teach Russia a lesson. To be clear: it’s terrible what Putin is doing, and I don’t sympathise with his regime. But the world is full of terrible regimes, and nothing is as bad as a big war. 

Let’s look at the West’s role. NATO has incorporated Central and Eastern European countries and also negotiated with Ukraine and Georgia about accession. These are countries that were part of the Soviet Union and belonged to Russia before that. The negotiations stopped in 2008 but this provocative rapprochement has created a special relationship between NATO and Ukraine, which is a thorn in Putin’s side and that of many Russians too. I don’t really understand this Western association with Ukraine either. A stable democracy is a criterion for NATO membership, but Ukraine isn’t such an established democracy at all.’ 

To what extent could sanctions stop Russia?

‘The tensions won’t disappear, and heavy sanctions will also cause lots of problems for the Western countries themselves, such as an acute shortage of gas if Russia cuts off the gas. So be careful about shouting too loudly. Fortunately, French president Macron still seems to be cautious, and Germany will hopefully also go down the talks route. One of the few sensible analyses that I’ve read recently was the opinion piece by Leiden historian Luuk van Middelaar in NRC Handelsblad (in Dutch). I agree with him: give Ukraine a neutral status in the coming decades. We don’t have to commit militarily to this country. Why would we want a bloody war with so much bloodshed?’

Photo above article: Ukrainian soldiers guard the border with Russia. ANP/Aleksey Filippov
Text: Linda van Putten

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