NISS Director Oleksandr Bogomolov: "No one can reverse our course toward the EU, but there are other formats"

Russia is maintaining pressure on Kyiv. In view of this, Ukraine desperately needs allies who share our common goals. The Apostrophe spoke with Oleksandr Bogomolov, Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, about the main foreign policy challenges and domestic problems that Ukraine is to face in 2022.


- 2022 is expected to be very hot for Ukraine, especially in terms of foreign policy. There are sentiments that we are increasingly threatened by Russia’s direct aggression, and Washington is interested in normalizing relations with Moscow, since China is the main opponent of the United States and it is of utmost importance for Biden not to drive the Kremlin into the arms of Beijing. What can we expect in the current situation, in terms of specific substantive steps, and not just declarations?

- Indeed, relations between the United States and China are beset by tension, which is increasingly becoming a defining element of the world order and a marker for allies and partners on one side or another. In fact, the competition at a global scale is going on not only along these lines; there is also an intra-Asian competition and even confrontation between China and India, which are battling for influence over other states.

China's powerful rise initially had the hallmarks of a peaceful economic growth, and even a "low-profile policy" was officially proclaimed during the time of Deng Xiaoping. However, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, the traits and mechanisms underlying China's one-party dictatorship project began to surface. This is a huge challenge for many countries, but it is doubly challenging for us, because our most significant partner is the United States. On the other hand, there is China, which we cannot escape either, and we have to build relations with China as well, because we are dependent on supply chains. For instance, Ukrainian pharmacology cannot function without components coming from China. But China can easily do without the Ukrainian market. In other words, the imbalance is obvious; it is difficult to build a stable relationship in these conditions, also against the backdrop of security challenges that we face.

- How are the relations between China and Russia developing now and how will the issue of Ukraine play out here?

- Russia is increasingly trying to take advantage of the fact that China is interested in a partnership with it in the short term. But the Celestial Empire has never had allies, which is their policy point. And the Russians are realistic about the limitations of this partnership, which is based on China's interest in Russia’s raw materials, energy and cheap supply routes. More essentially, China is still well behind Russia in militarily and technological terms, but it expects to fully modernize its armed forces by 2035. They are very much motivated to cooperate with Russia in this regard. This sets a time limit for Russia’s usefulness to China, Russia is aware of that and intends to take full advantage of it politically while China is still interested. 

This combination is quite unfavorable for us, although Ukraine has been receiving some positive political signals from China, given all the current circumstances. Before the global confrontation intensified, I remember a Chinese ambassador to Ukraine delivering a very pro-Ukrainian speech at a national day reception: he compared the Chinese struggle for independence against the aggressors to the Ukrainian one. Apparently, not all Chinese officials are ready to publicize such views, but it was articulated orally at the time. Overall, there is some potential here, but in reality, it is a very complex culture, and it needs specific approaches to building a balanced relationship between Ukraine and China.

- So how can we avoid falling out with the United States and China at the same time, given the context?

- The confrontation between the United States and China is broader than Ukraine’s format, for better or worse, we are not a decisive factor in world affairs. The most Ukraine can achieve, given its potential, is to become a ‘middle power’. That is, at some point we could be somewhere at the level of modern Turkey or Poland.

Meanwhile, what is happening inside the United States – the deepening political polarization - is a greater challenge for us than the confrontation between the US and China. Fortunately, Ukraine still enjoys a bipartisan support. Ukraine stays in the spotlight despite all the trouble caused by deepening internal divisions and our own misgivings.

I often repeat the mantra that we can group countries based on their attitude towards us. Aside from those remote ones that may be completely indifferent to us (e.g. such countries as say Nigeria or Chile, which might not even care whether Ukraine exists or not) or those, who probably care (e.g. Argentina with its Ukrainian diaspora) but could hardly play any significant role, the rest of the world around us could be grouped in light of a single issue, an existential threat that we now face.

We can group countries in our immediate environment and the large ones that are ‘neighbors’ to everyone – that is, the United States and China – into two categories. Probably all of these countries see that Russia is a problem. The German Rußland –Versteher’s are just trying to solve this problem in some soft way, yet they know that Russia is a problem, there is a consensus about it.

Of course, Russia is different kind of problem for each of these countries. For instance, it is a problem for Turkey, but of a different nature than it is for Poland, or for the United States. But in general, this is the same Russia – and it is a problem for everyone (this is not to deny that some look at Russia with a modicum of hope – e.g. Iran). Moreover, Russia clearly understands that it is a problem for everyone (including itself), to the extent that being a problem has become part of its foreign policy arsenal, which it consciously uses to raise its ‘global power’ profile. Against this backdrop our neighbors – both small and large – could be divided into two uneven groups: those who, even showing some degree of empathy to us (such as Germany or Netherlands), still see us as part of the problem, and those – who see us – potentially - as part of the solution.

- You mentioned Germany, where the new government has taken over from Angela Merkel,  and a whole epoch is over. In the new government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Energy went "green". At the same time, a representative of the SPD became the new chancellor. In your opinion, how will this change in the country's leadership and in the distribution of ministerial portfolios impact Ukraine-Germany relations?

- We have received some positive signals, for example in the form of a speech by the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, who recently addressed our diplomats at a meeting of ambassadors to which I was invited. It was a very positive speech: the Minister noted that Germans somehow do not pay much attention to the fact that Ukraine is a country that suffered greatly from German aggression back in the day. That is, regarding the painful legacy of the WW2, Germans had adopted a frame, in which Russia features as a victim – and of course is benefitting from being seeing as such in its relations with Germany (that is not what she said, but what she probably intended to hint at). But in fact, it was Ukraine that suffered the most.

Annalena Baerbock specifically highlighted this issue – which is something new for a German politician - and promised to work on it.

- As far as we know, the Ambassador of Ukraine to Germany Andriy Melnyk is actively involved in it ...

- True. In fact, there are things that common political commentators do not pay attention to. I would call them cultural and cognitive factors, that is, in what light someone is seen. For example, we are often not noticed against the background of the so-called ‘post-Soviet space’, that is, Ukraine is not taken for what it is – an independent country, which, one way or another, has always been part of the historic landscape of Central and Eastern Europe, with its own historic legacy, distinct language and culture, sense of historic destiny and aspirations, and not merely a former province of the Russian or Soviet Empire. This is a big obstacle, because such attitudes often work at a subconscious level in the minds of the European decision-makers, prompting them to perceive the current problem between Ukraine and Russia as some sort of family spat.

Based on the impressions of our diplomatic corps, one of the problems is that the new government in Berlin took office with their own agenda, which is, of course, designed for the Germans. In other words, they came to solve strictly German issues, and had hardly yet thought too much about Ukraine, although they are trying to do so now. It will take time for them to fill in their knowledge gaps and get a handle on it. In the tense situation of political blackmailing that Russia has currently engaged in, the change of government in Germany is an additional factor in favor of Moscow; again, the timing for their escalation was chosen aptly.

- Another influential European player is France. Do you think Macron will continue the policy of Putin's appeasement? Will he try to take the lead over Germany in the EU?

- France and Germany have been a good duo lately. They have been and will continue to be "the most equal" among the equal members of the EU. Whether the Chancellor of Germany will be a socialist or a conservative, the balance will be restored in the short term. Now Macron is displaying an extraordinary activity in the pre-election context (the presidential election will take place in April – ‘Apostrophe’): he decided to meet with the Visegrad Four, although previously he did not pay much attention to it; announced a reform program and made some rather ambiguous proposals regarding the need to reform the Schengen Area policies... In other words, the pre-election steps of the President of France should not be overestimated. There is no reason to believe that Macron 2.0 will be somehow better for us, than Macron 1.0.  

In general, I would not be optimistic about changes in French policy: I do not see any factors that could lead to this. The cultural and geographical distance between Ukraine and France, the geographical distribution of France's foreign interests ranging from Africa to the Mediterranean, will not change. In light of these, France has always been among the least interested countries, whenever not only Ukraine, but the whole of the EU’s Eastern Partnership had been discussed. The attitude of Paris toward others in our surroundings, for instance, Turkey, is known, and no changes are expected here.

As for the French elections, the challenges are the same. Now there is a new edition of the right-wing politicians, and I think this demonstrates that this phenomenon cannot be ignored. This ability to adapt and transform may be seen as a sign of a growing strength of this right-leaning trend. In fact, Eric Zemmour is originally a migrant, who is strongly opposed to migrants. Sounds like a case of ‘self-hatred’ as they say in some quarters, a paradoxical exception that may be proving a rule.

A powerful conservative trend in Europe, which manifests itself in different ways, is another danger; not only in itself, but also because it is misunderstood or ignored. Among our neighbors, our closest partners, including Poland, Hungary and Turkey, also show manifestations of the conservative trend – each in their own manner. Our political culture, our ideas of democracy and liberalism, on the contrary, are adopted mainly from the Western left, while our popular culture is no less conservative than that of the other Central and East European nations.

A reformatting or, as some say, even a crisis of liberalism is unfolding in Europe. That is why we need to hold on to every straw, we cannot hold on to just one. Ukraine needs partner nations, not individual organizations or political camps.

- You spoke about the crisis in the EU. But our course of European integration is even established in the Constitution. What terms or comprehensible indicators can mark this movement?

- I will say something unpopular, but those who see us as part of the solution, and not as part of the problem, are ready to accept us. Who was it in the EU? It was Britain that exited the EU. As long as we are seen as part of the problem, we can go on doing our home work and improving the indicators for as long as it takes.

I believe that now we should emphasize something completely different, which is actual cooperation with specific countries that see us as part of the solution. And in this context, Britain's exit from the EU is a plus for us: a strong strategic cooperation agreement with London and  the actual military assistance that we now receive are among the achievements of 2021. In fact, currently there is a problem: our Conservative friends, including Boris Johnson, seem to be losing popularity, but I hope they will regain it.

- How significant are regional formats of cooperation for us?

- We must not miss opportunities, as it happened with the Intermarium. Now countries are looking for regional formats of cooperation, including outside Europe. There is a change in the international order. Large organizations with dozens of members are clumsy and are facing great difficulties trying to cope with it. Therefore, when we need to respond to challenges quickly, we are not the only ones currently using regional formats. For example, here is an unexpected alliance: the United Arab Emirates extend a hand to India and form an India –Israel – Emirates triangle. English-speaking countries form their own new security formats. AUKUS is a case in point. So why don't we do the same with our neighbors who face the same challenges as us.

It should be added that these formats would not replace the European integration, they complement it. No one can reverse our course toward the EU, but the existing formats have obvious limitations. In 2021, by the way, the Associated Trio was established including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Such groups are usually limited to some specific agenda: in our case, it is economics and security. However, the emergence of such formats does not exclude the existence of larger, comprehensive forms such as the EU.

- Speaking of NATO, they have been telling us about open doors for the last 13 years, but nothing has changed. Can there be concrete steps in the foreseeable future that will bring us closer to the Alliance?

- Our concrete steps are our cooperation with the United Kingdom, the United States, Turkey, with the countries that can help and are interested in us as well. We should learn from the experience of European countries that are not members of NATO, but have very strong bilateral relations. Finland is the case in point.

Often only Finlandization comes to mind over here, but this country has recently bought out all their tanks from the Dutch, and immense quantities of small arms.

- They are also buying dozens of F-35s from the USA...

- This is true. Some NATO experts say Finland is much better prepared for a possible armed conflict with Russia than most NATO countries. The Finns are systematically conducting large-scale military exercises jointly with the United States and Sweden. At the same time, they recently held a referendum in which the citizens voted against joining NATO, but the cooperation with the Alliance is so close that many NATO members look like kindergarten in comparison.

In other words, practice is more important than slogans. You can eventually become a NATO member, but no one respects beseechers, you need to have some added value. We already have it in theory, but we need to work more on it.

- And what should Ukraine prepare for in 2022 concerning Russia?

- Now we are in a crisis situation; different options are possible. I do not want to scare anyone. I think we need to realize that the situation is quite tense, but these tensions are still manifested mostly in the diplomatic dimension and probably they will remain there. This does not mean that we are better off. However, it is too early to make predictions.

- Back to Asia, if you please. In your opinion, what opportunities do we have there in the new year and what do we need to work on?

- We need to develop relations with India, there is potential for that. Basically, with many other Asian countries as well. Why do we have such a trade turnover with China as opposed to other Asian countries? Because Beijing itself has been very active, because China is trying, relatively speaking, to conquer the world, and we are part of this world.

We are interested in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, other countries, just look at the map. But China prevails, it is "nearby" and others are far away. In order to find more exporting opportunities in other Asian countries, we need to put a lot of effort and to invest in it, but we always have problems with that.

- Let's move on to domestic issues. What major domestic political risks do you see for the current government in 2022, and how can it overcome them?

- I think they are classical ones. We have a rather toxic political environment; I wish there would be more cohesion in it. The external challenges we now face are more important than any internal confrontation. I wish the Ukrainian society could finally grow up a bit and look at it as a priority, and not merely from the prospective of some sort of competition, as if it was merely a political contest.

It is in our interest to improve the unfavorable situation in the economy, because our adversary is focused on destabilizing Ukraine. This is a key instrument of Moscow and our key vulnerability, which they know full well.

- Speaking of the threat of destabilization, I would like you to clarify something for me. Decentralization has been going on in Ukraine for the sixth year in a row. How successful is it at the present stage, in your view, and are we moving in the right direction?

- This is a difficult process. Yatsenyuk's government adopted the program, which reads like a poem, with beautiful words and ideas. In essence, this is the largest Ukrainian reform, which, unlike all other reforms, affects the interests of the majority of the population. When it was launched, those who did it were not fully aware of the depth of these transformations. We at NISS consider decentralization a priority now.

It is too early to draw any conclusions on decentralization itself. In some respects there is progress, some social changes have been launched, whose impact we will see maybe in 10 years – so, it is too early to tell. There are some difficulties that are being overcome; the search is going on for ways to overcome them. These include, for instance, changes in the map of transport connections resulting from the changes in the subordination of territories, access to services, etc. Many different things about which there is not even complete information.

- One of the fears associated with this reform was the strengthening of the so-called local "princes". How serious is this threat and how can one contend with it?

- Now there are issues at the regional level that previously came to the fore at the central level. Political competition in Kyiv has been going on for 30 years. Now it is unfolding at the local level in much the same form, but there is very limited experience in terms of political culture.

This reform has various dimensions. It appeared in a certain political context, when the idea of ​​federalization was being imposed on us, and this is in fact our asymmetric response – in fact, a European response – to the Asiatic model of federalization that was pushed by Russia. There are constitutional changes that are expected to be adopted and there are some challenges, because it is a matter of division of powers. The operational vertical, which is needed, inter alia, for the organization of defense at the national level, must reach the regional level somehow. I hope these matters will be sorted out duly.

- What would be the worst and best scenario for the Ukrainian economy in 2022?

- We have certain economic strengths and weaknesses. What helps us ease the post-crisis situation at the macroeconomic level is the upward price trend in the global grain market, which is bringing more money to Ukraine. On the other hand, we have multiple internal problems, including income inequality.

There is also the issue of spiraling energy prices, their availability and their sources – which make us depend on Russia.

- On average, every 10 years the government of many countries, including our European neighbors, outlines the so-called population profile by conducting a census. How important is it for us now?

- It is important to know where we are, what we are, how many of us are there. Overall, it is impossible to plan many different things without having the actual statistics. It is impossible to conduct even a reliable sociological survey, because it needs an accurate sampling design. I can cite the opinion of more authoritative people on this issue. For example, Ella Libanova, who leads the Institute of Demography of Ukraine, has spoken out many times on the urgent need to have a census.

- As for common sense, the government's recent decision to enlist women in the military has caused great public outrage. Is this the right decision?

- I think this is an unfortunate step. With respect to us, our society. The same idea can be realized in different ways in various socio-political and socio-cultural contexts, and it will have far different consequences. In particular, Israel has a completely different situation in this regard. You can compare the two countries and even find some emotional inspiration in someone else’s successful experience, but in our case, this idea cannot be properly implemented.

First, the mobilization system needs to be reformed. Enlisting women under the current system will overload this system and as such will bear no fruit. Such a step in our current circumstances is clearly counterproductive. To be fair, the decision was made by the previous leadership of the Ministry of Defense, not the current one, in different circumstances, it was under review for a long time, and only popped up now without due regard to the fact that the context has changed dramatically.


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