The War in Ukraine, according to Karaganov. How Russia desires to survive it, and to change the Western World

Rally for right to vote in Moscow (August 10, 2019): also in Russia there is, or there was, a civil rights movement, aiming at achieving really free elections. Ph by putnik - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

We re-publish here an interview that Sergei A. Karaganov, Professor Emeritus and Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, HSE, recently gave to the Russian magazine “Bizness Online”*.

It is of fundamental importance that here in the Western world we try and understand how the Russian élite is living through the current war crisis and what are their expectations. Their world view is of course quite different than ours, yet it will be impossible to imagine a process that leads to new peace settlements, without a mutual understanding.

Sergei Karaganov: “We are shaking off the Western yoke…”

“I think this kind of conflict is a failure of my generation, because we could have prevented open war in Europe, which is perhaps still in its initial phase. We should have acted earlier and more decisively. We appeased, hoped, and believed for too long,” said Sergei Karaganov, Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics. In the 1990s and the 2000s, he was a member of the Trilateral Commission, a leading organization that brought together the elites from the United States, Western Europe, he became (and still is) one of the most informed political scientists in Russia. In an interview to BUSINESS Online, he told us whether nuclear war is possible, whether we will become a satellite of China, and why some in the Russian government are against designing a new ideology.

The special military operation [in Ukraine] has been going on for more than a year. During this period, in your opinion, have any dramatic changes occurred in Russia and the world?

— A lot of changes have occurred over the past year and they are snowballing. The special military operation is only a small, albeit very important, part of these rapid changes for us. We just stop noticing them because the whirlpool of events doesn’t give us a chance to think them over. Meanwhile, just a year ago the world was a different place. For example, during this time, China has turned from a great economic power into a great foreign policy power, having achieved tremendous 2 success in this field. Europe, on the other hand, has gone even farther towards its downfall. During this year, a lot has changed in our country as well. First of all, Russia’s Western voyage has come to a close. Now Russia is looking for its own self. Let us hope that it will regain itself as soon as possible. The nationalization of the elite has accelerated, and we have largely done away with the part of the economic elite that worked for the West. In political science parlance, it is called the Comprador elite.

In our previous interview in November 2020, you said: “Today, Russia and Europe, despite all the disagreements, have a huge number of economic and cultural ties. But we are moving away from each other on the main issues.” What is the situation like now? Has everything been broken completely and have we moved away from each other down to the limit, or is our confrontation not as serious and deep as many think, and is it still possible to reverse things?

— Our disagreements are profound for several reasons. The European elites, under whose feet the earth is burning, decided to try to salvage their positions by throwing a foreign policy, propaganda, economic and partly even military challenge to Russia, bringing relations to their worst. But perhaps the most important thing is that Russia and Europe (not the whole of it, of course, because Europe is not uniform) differ in terms of values, and this process is unfolding fast. We are becoming old Europeans, while they are turning into post-Europeans and even moving towards post-human values. When the EU finally crumbles, agreements with individual countries will be quite likely. But this is a distant prospect.

The voice of Africa, which we have not heard at all for probably thirty years, sounds quite strong today, and in mid-May, the president of South Africa made a statement that Russia and Ukraine had agreed to accept an African peacekeeping mission. Saudi Arabia has gone against its traditional friend, the United States. How do you see these changes? What is going on out there?

— The liberation of the world from the Western yoke is a trend that has developed over the past several years. Countries are becoming increasingly free. The West is struggling to keep the remains of neo-colonialism, but the rest of the world is fighting to get rid of it. We can say proudly, but also with some regret, that once again Russia happens to be at the forefront of this struggle, acting as a kind of icebreaker that crushes the remains of the neocolonial system of Western dominance. As such, the icebreaker always bears the brunt of it and takes the blows. But the world has already become much freer, more diverse, more multipolar, and more colorful. The Saudis have openly challenged the Americans and do not particularly regret it, and the Gulf Arab states feel much more confident. The fact that African countries are becoming much more active and openly challenging their former European masters is a part of a profound process that is currently underway. We are witnessing a most powerful and intensifying global earthquake. This is uncomfortable, but after an earthquake, there appear new continents, countries, phenomena, mountains, and gorges. This is how a new world is created.

In 2021, you wrote in your article that a new Cold War was unfolding, from which Russia had a chance to emerge victorious. “For this, Russia must choose the correct domestic and foreign policy orientation and, most importantly, stay away from a big war that may develop into a global thermonuclear and cyberspace Armageddon,” you wrote back then. Today, in 2023, when the conflict in Ukraine has entered the hot stage, with the entire collective West fighting against Russia, do you still think that we have a chance to win? And why, in your opinion, did the Cold War actually turn into a hot one?

— The Cold War actually turned hot because we had waited too long. We should have struck in 2018-2019. The COVID pandemic that occurred in 2021 temporarily replaced the war. It had been clear for a long time that the West continued to wage the Cold War against us, but we were waiting for something. Perhaps we were gathering our strength. Probably we did not fully understand the 4 depth of our disagreements. Maybe we hoped to come to agreement. Some wanted to keep their capital or positions in the West. If we had acted earlier, then perhaps an armed conflict―open and big―could have been avoided. But what happened, happened. I think that this kind of conflict is a failure of my generation, because we could prevent an open war in Europe, which is perhaps still in its initial phase. We should have acted earlier and more decisively. We pacified, hoped, and believed for too long. As for our chances to win, they are quite big. Moreover, in my opinion, this military operation has given a powerful boost to the internal potential of our society. We are becoming more self-reliant, more determined and more sovereign. Whether we use this opportunity depends to a large extent on us ourselves. But there is such an opportunity, and we have every chance to win, although it is going to be a very long struggle. Even when the acute phase of the military conflict in Ukraine ends, the earthquake and the growing wave of transformations will continue for at least another decade and a half. This is why it is probably too early to talk about victory, but there is every chance that we can win at the operational-tactical level. However, the main thing is to break the West’s will to continue the confrontation. This is a higher-level task. And it cannot be solved if we do not start raising the stakes sharply and getting ready for a higher level of confrontation.

Just to compare, what was the situation of Russia at the beginning of the special military operation and what is it like today? Would you agree that there is no unconditional support for our country in the world? Who are our allies? Why does no one openly support us as the West supports Ukraine? For example, China.

— As I have already said, we are acting as an icebreaker heading for a new world, and many countries are taking advantage of the fact that we are breaking the five-century-old ice of Western supremacy and dominance. We are fighting against a weakening and fading but still a very strong civilization. This is a colossal and complex process. 5 As for the fact that we have no allies, we are supported by the majority of humanity, if not in the UN, then in practice. It’s the world majority. And this is quite obvious. What is also true though is that a significant part of our elite, still focusing on the West and on some of their own interests in the West, does not want to understand that this is over for the foreseeable future, thank God for that! We had taken everything we could from the West and Europe, and could further get only additional problems or plagues from them such as the new ideological movements. We have sustained losses of course, particularly economic ones. They are obvious, but we can use them for our own benefit. And we have suffered foreign policy losses as well, because our room for maneuver has shrunk immensely. When we had at least some kind of relationship with the West, we had stronger positions, for example, in relations with China. Today, in our tandem, Beijing looks much stronger than three years ago, when we were still stronger in terms of aggregate power. But we must understand that Russia will never become subordinate to China the way it almost became dependent on the West for one simple reason―we have different cultural codes. Besides, absolute readiness to fight for our sovereignty runs in the genetic code of our people, and our Chinese friends know and respect that.

But would you agree that Beijing seems to solving its problems at our expense?

— We are also solving our problems at China’s expense. As a matter of fact, we are also hiding behind its strong economic back. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had got involved in confrontation, which was practically inevitable, if China were not behind us? Likewise, China would be much weaker if Russia did not stand behind it. As for who is using whom and how, this is a matter of practical policy and diplomacy. For the time being, we are using each other. But in our pair, I think I will repeat it, three years ago, Russia had stronger positions than China, because the latter had already got involved in a fierce confrontation with the United States, with Russia acting as its shield. Now Russia has got into confrontation, so, naturally, we are more 6 dependent on China, and we are drawing off the West’s military-political resources. China is using this chance to build up its strength for a decisive battle.

In October 2022, you wrote: “We are living in a dangerous period, on the verge of a full-fledged Third World War, which can put an end to human civilization. But if Russia wins, and this is more than likely, and the conflict does not escalate to a full-blown nuclear war, we must look at the coming decades not as a time of dangerous chaos (as the majority in the West speaks of).” Do you think the same now? Is World War III still possible? And what about a nuclear war?

— It still is possible, and it will be for a very long time, because, as I have said, there is a major earthquake in progress, and the huge continent of Western civilization is going down. This is an unprecedentedly quick shock because this civilization is one of the foundations of the present world order. This is a very dangerous period. The main source of danger is, of course, not so much the West itself―I do not want to echo those who constantly blame it for everything―as the situation in the West. It is living through a multifaceted and very deep moral, economic, and political crisis. Elites are losing power. This is a rather scary situation in which the elites have opted for a policy of bellicosity in a desperate attempt to stop history and even for war. So the Rubicon has not yet been crossed. If things go this way, then I would not exclude that some negotiations, a truce could be possible sometime in the future, but all the same the situation is likely to move to a higher level of confrontation. The main task is to force the West to retreat and take a more modest place in the international system.

You mentioned truce. More and more countries want to participate in the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Ukraine. Do you think Russia and Ukraine will be forced to make peace? On what conditions can this be possible?

— A war is going on, it is called a special military operation. I think its outcome is predetermined. It is Russia’s victory. But the price of such an outcome 7 can be extremely high, and it can take a very long time. In this struggle between Russia and the West in Ukraine and elsewhere there will be negotiations, at least they will pretend to conduct them, but aggravations are very likely. I am afraid that the situation will be taken to a higher level of confrontation. But I think the only possible solution to the problem we are facing should be the elimination of Ukraine as an anti-Russian entity and the breaking of the West’s will to continue the confrontation. This is a very complicated task. Negotiations are possible, and, of course, we would like Ukraine to wave the white flag and become a peace-loving and Russia-friendly state. But I doubt this very much simply because this is already a failed state living through the deepest and most acute crisis. This is the Weimar Republic which is fighting a war at the same time, the Weimar Republic, which we know gave birth to Hitlerism.

And what should Russia do if there is a common settlement plan worked out in a U.S.-China coalition? And in general, how do you assess the chances of such an outcome?

— In general, like any normal person, I do not want war and realize that war, even just and inevitable, as in our case, brings grief, destruction, and death. This is the first point. Secondly, if something can be negotiated, let’s try it and scale down confrontation and particularly human suffering. But, I repeat, there are only two ways to solve the problem between Russia and the West. One is to eliminate Ukraine as anti-Russia. Ukraine or its part may remain as a Russia-friendly entity. And the other one is to break the West’s will to put up desperate resistance it has been showing in recent years, realizing that it is losing its five-hundred-year hegemony in the world that allowed it to exert cultural and political dominance and, more importantly, to syphon off the gross world product. This period is over, and this is happening right before our eyes. Naturally, there is still a lot of inequality, but global wealth has begun to flow away from the West. And this is what infuriates its ruling class.

Why do you think Russia did not discuss with China its settlement plan after Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in February 2023? Did Russia not like the plan proposed by China?

— One should read this plan. It is positive, but there is nothing specific in it. It is for all the good against all the bad. I do not know what Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping agreed on during their one-on-one meeting, but I suppose they did agree on something, and now there will be a long game, including diplomatic one, of which I know nothing, but in which, I think, we will see many interesting turns. The visit of the Special Representative of China, our wonderful friend, Ambassador Li Hui to Kiev and Moscow attracts attention, of course, but we must look at much deeper political, diplomatic, intellectual, and economic processes.

What is your general forecast for the development of the conflict in Ukraine? The Americans say that everything should finally become clear and somehow work out by late fall. Henry Kissinger has joined in with his own forecasts. For our part, we do not start an offensive, apparently waiting for the Ukrainian counterattack. Everyone is waiting. What will be the result of this waiting? Will the conflict be frozen and Ukraine will be divided like Korea, or will we be fighting till victory? And what should be considered a victory and what will it look like?

— I deeply respect Henry Kissinger and consider him the number one in our profession, but I am a bit upset that he is making such fuss. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. And I don’t know what is going to really happen. I only know that if we show the will to fight and win, then what I said will happen. Ukraine will cease to exist as an anti-Russian state, and the West will retreat. But there will be a very long and difficult struggle on the way, a struggle to make our country different, much stronger and more just, much more self-respecting and respected in the world. And finally, make it a country that has more control of its own wealth; of course, a country with renewed elites and upgraded technologies, a country whose economic, political, and intellectual center will shift to the Urals and Siberia. We have to move 9 eastward mentally, economically, and politically, because we have got stuck in the West, and this is one of our main weaknesses and causes of our troubles over the last 40-50 years. We should go to new frontiers, towards the world majority, breaking away from the West that is pulling us back. What in my view also makes the Ukraine conflict dangerous is that we may get stuck with the West, trying to negotiate where there is no one to negotiate with. And I think there will be nothing to negotiate at least in the next decade, although we can pretend to do so. The West is crumbling. And as its vis-a-vis, we now look stronger and much more stable than two or three years ago.

You say a long and hard fight is ahead of us. Will we have enough resources for it, primarily economic ones? Both the president and businesses say that there is already a shortage of workers everywhere. There are not enough young people and there are a lot of those who move out of the country.

— This is a problem for every business and every institution. They need to look for and train strong and new personnel. We need to retrain people and untie their hands. Construction is in progress. As for people’s complaints, well, it’s difficult to live in an era of change. But this is a much more promising time even for business, because vast new opportunities are emerging, especially for small and medium-sized businesses. If I were a young man, I would definitely get engaged in business. I had to do this in the 1990s in order to rescue institutions, which I had created and headed. I have not been doing this for a long time, but I see vast opportunities appearing in this field, new niches and new horizons opening up. I envy young people who will do business now.

Much has been said about deglobalization and the construction of a new world. What, in your opinion, will it be like? Will it be bipolar (U.S. and China) or multipolar? If the latter, who will become the new centers of power? Does Russia have the potential (except for the military one) for that?

— About 50, 40 or even 20 years ago, most people believed that the world was globalizing. Many in the West and even in our country dreamed of a world government, a global system of power based on transnational corporations and international non-state organizations. They still mutter something about it in Davos. But all this looks more like a comic opera. The world is heading for new sovereignization. It will be a world of a large number of states, a very fluid world, much freer than it is now, and much more multicolored, with many more opportunities. There will be no bipolar world. It can be called multipolar, but I would call it multicolored and multidimensional. Actually I like the world we will build if we avoid a world thermonuclear conflict, which, unfortunately, still seems quite possible. Unfortunately, I will most likely not live to see that world, but I really like the picture of it. I envy people who are young today or who are just being born. They will live in a very interesting world. But we will have to survive a lot of dangers. One of them is the loss of human values, which we now see happening en masse in the West. The main task is to remain humans. By the way, thisis also what we are fighting for now, including in Ukraine so that people remain people and do not turn into savages, nothings.

The question of justice appears to be very important and fundamental today. The West claims that Russia has violated not only all the norms of international law by committing aggression against a UN member country, which it recognized, but also all the moral principles of justice and human coexistence. It is destroying cities and making people suffer. Therefore, Russia is the embodiment of injustice. And we respond with “No, guys, you have grown a misanthropic and fascist regime in Ukraine with its unfair and ugly division of people into right and wrong, where the latter are subjected to elimination and all kinds of discrimination.” So both sides use the same word in their interpretations. Do you think that the new world will be fairer and what should we understand by the word “justice”?

— Justice should be understood primarily as the freedom of choice for peoples, the freedom of cultural, economic and political choice. And of course, justice means a much more even distribution of global wealth. The current form of capitalism is ugly everywhere, including in our own country, although I hope it will become less ugly as a result of this conflict. Indeed, wealth is now being redistributed within the country in favor of people who deserve it more, such as scientists, military personnel, engineers, and families with children, and this process will continue. As for this conflict, we are shaking off the Western yoke. The West suppressed the whole world, robbed, killed, and destroyed. We can talk for hours about the horrors that marked the last 500 years of Western rule. Finally, it started two world wars. Let me remind you that Nazism―a totally misanthropic ideology―was born in the West, and they are nourishing it again. Communism was also born there. I do not equate it to Nazism, because outwardly it is a much more humane ideology. Besides, communism was advocated by the Soviet Union, which won, and Nazism lost. Liberalism is something like these two “isms,” and I do hope that it will also recede into the deep shadows of history. Countries that expound it or bow to it are quickly moving towards totalitarianism, fascism, and cancel culture. The only thing that makes Russophobia better than anti-Semitism is that Russia has the resources to defend itself, but the Jews did not have such an opportunity.

If some kind of peace agreement is signed, will it not be like the Treaty of Versailles, which did not give people the long-awaited calm and stable development, but led to a new big war?

— This is why I say that this peace should ultimately be achieved precisely on the conditions I mentioned above, that is, breaking the West’s will to expand and continue the confrontation. This is the first point. The second point is a fully demilitarized and de-Nazified Ukraine, that is, a completely different country than the one it is now. Not anti-Russia. Then peace will be fair enough. We have offered such peace for years. But our requests, proposals, and demands were turned down. Unfortunately, this policy has led to an open clash that is only gaining momentum. 12 Both you and most of us are still in the shadow of Western ideology. I read Eastern newspapers from India and China, and the picture of the world in them is completely different. We focus on a shrinking and crumbling, but still very powerful, civilization, while new ones are rising and prospering around. Let’s turn our gaze to them.

Can it happen that in the end the United States and China will make a deal and divide the world between themselves to dictate conditions to all others? U.S. hegemony will shrink, but the influence of the Eastern partner will increase. In this case, who will we be with―the West or the East? Will such an alignment―being the periphery of one of the centers of power again―suit us?

— We will be ourselves. Fortunately, the question you have raised is no longer relevant. Previously, in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, there was a chance that we would go with the West. But it rejected this possibility, thus dramatically undermining its own future. Now this window of opportunity is closed. Russia will never become anyone’s client-state. This is impossible in principle. This is the first point. Secondly, all the people who say things like that don’t see where the world is going. New continents, civilizations, and centers are rising. How can China dominate this emerging world if there will be great India, great Russia, great Persia, great Turkey, and strong Arabs next to it? Such a situation is impossible! Maybe some parts of Europe will rally around the United States, but I am sure that in ten years parts of crumbling Europe will also drift towards the East. This can already be seen in the case of Hungary and many political and economic movements in Europe. This is just the beginning. This is why it is quite possible that there will be the United States with a group of its client-states and the rest of the huge world with no hegemon. China will never be a hegemon in this world.

You say that you read their press and they see the contemporary world and its future in a completely different way. How do they see it?

— Roughly the way I see it. I do not want to attribute their ideas to myself, or my own to them, but Indians, although there are both pro-Western and anti-Chinese people among them, are nevertheless very realistic and take an extremely interesting look at the modern world. In Russia, our intellectuals still have one physiological fault―they look at the world through Western eyes, although we ourselves are moving towards a completely different world. This fault becomes a sign of intellectual poverty.

In a nutshell, to outline their vision conceptually, what is it like? What do they see in the future?

— Many centers of power, a much freer choice for peoples, release from the Western yoke, which bore down upon them for five centuries, and an independent path of development. But there are different elites in these countries, too. There are Comprador elites, and there is a struggle. But views in these countries, in Arabs countries, in Turkey, and in India are fundamentally different from those which until recently were expounded by the majority of Russian intellectuals. I repeat, this habit of seeing the world through Western eyes looks to me like a sign of intellectual poverty.

You say that we will never become someone’s client-state controlled by any center of power. But what can we offer the world? What is our special path?

— First of all, we must think about what we can offer ourselves, and then about what we will offer the rest of the world. I think that for Russia it is the path of sovereignty, the path of national freedom, the path to justice. The world of Russia is a world of normal people who love their country, their family, their history, and the people around, who believe in God or who may not believe in God but who believe in the high purpose of man. Russia has the richest culture and the powerful military. Russia is a country of warriors that has cut the ground from under the West’s dominance in military affairs, politics, economy, and culture. We will continue to 14 support this freedom of choice for countries and peoples. We are a country that carries liberation to peoples, countries, and nations. Q: What is our ideology like? By the way, do we need to articulate it as even the head of the Ministry of Justice has recently proposed? And what could be in it? Can traditional values serve this purpose? A: I have roughly described a new ideology to you. It is absolutely obvious. We do need an ideology. Those who resist it are either stupid or hiding something. It is true though that we do not need a single ideology. Ideology should be born in disputes and struggle, but it should be an ideology of patriotism and national greatness, multiple cultures and cultural openness. This is Russia’s greatest achievement. We obviously need this ideology, and it exists, in principle. It can be read in the speeches of the president and the works of many intellectuals. So far, for reasons not entirely clear to me, we are not ready to formulate it in detail and promote it, although many of its elements are already there; for example, in our foreign policy doctrine. I do not like that political technocrats or vulgar materialists, for whom “cash defeats evil”, call the shots at the middle level. We need people of spirit and deeds looking into the future.

Do you think that it is possible to start a discussion about this new ideology with Russian regions such as Tatarstan, the Caucasus, the Urals, or Muscovites? Work out some kind of consensus on what unites us, values, and the future?

— Naturally, this must be done. What annoys me is that a significant part of our leadership distances itself from this and opposes this work. The basic tenets of such an ideology are quite obvious: the freedom of peoples, cultural openness, respect for sovereignty, history, and ancestors, a fair international world order, reliance on fair strength and, of course, love for one’s own country and your near 15 and dear ones. This is the basis of Orthodoxy and other religions. This is the basis of man.

In other words, something needs to be done for consensus in society so that people agree on something in thought and spirit.

— This needs to be done constantly, but in our political system this will require a strong signal from above. Unfortunately, there has been none so far.

*The interview was originally published in Russian in Bizness Online  on May 28, 2023.


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