Interview with Mariia Zolkina | “Ukraine must restore control over its sovereign territory”

Interview with Mariia Zolkina | “Ukraine must restore control over its sovereign territory”

Ostap Kushnir: Looking at the Russo-Ukrainian war from a wider international perspective, what are, in your opinion, the prevalent narratives about the war that are circulating in the public and professed by experts in countries of the Middle East and North Africa? 

Mariia Zolkina: There are a few dominant narratives of how the war is portrayed and assessed in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). Above all, the war falls in line with the spirit of anti-Americanism that is strongly articulated in the informational space of the region. This spirit draws from the misfortunes that followed the US military operations in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. Russia has tried to make use of anti-American sentiments and reinforce the message all across the MENA that the US is the biggest global evil of the contemporary world and that if the US supports Ukraine, the latter could not be independent. Moreover, Moscow puts special emphasis on the idea that Ukraine is a “puppet government” ruled from Washington. However, the latter narrative is not as successful as Moscow would like. Thus, Ukraine is perceived mainly as a victim of aggression and as a nation that is fighting to defend itself. At the same time, in the MENA the position that Western partners of Ukraine should not be trusted unconditionally by Kyiv is very strong. 

The second narrative is that Ukraine and Russia have many similarities. This narrative draws on the lack of understanding of pre-2022 relations between the two states, as well as between Russia and the West. MENA residents have a very poor awareness of Ukraine’s having been an independent, truly democratic non-bloc state when Russia invaded in 2014, or that the war had in fact started in 2014, not 2022, that there was no overwhelming majority of separatists (if any at all) in the east of Ukraine, and that the Donbas region and Crimea were annexed illegally. Also, they do not understand clearly the global magnitude of the conflict or the depth of the political split between Ukrainians and Russians. Finally, if anti-Americanism is added to this melange, the confusion in perceptions of ongoing war by the public in the region becomes more understandable. 

The third narrative, which is present not only in the MENA but across many Western states, is that Russia cannot be defeated—namely, it is simply impossible to defeat a nuclear state with a large army and unlimited mobilization resources. Therefore, public opinion holds that Russia’s retreat, demilitarization, and denuclearization are inconceivable. Oppositely, there is the idea that some concessions on the side of Ukraine are unavoidable. This narrative was quite prevalent among Ukraine’s Western partners during the first months of the invasion but started waning with time. In the MENA, it is still popular but is also gradually weakening in light of Russia’s many military debacles in Ukraine. 

The fourth narrative is more specific to the states of Africa than to the MENA overall—that is, that Russia is a “good” global power that stands against “bad” powers. This narrative draws from the history of support being provided to African governments and nations by the Soviet Union, to which Moscow decided unilaterally that Russia would be the successor. It also draws from Russia’s mutually beneficial weapons trade with African countries during recent decades. And of course, Russia has also been investing a lot of money in building its propaganda networks on the continent. As a result, Ukrainian positions and appeals are downplayed, if not ignored. One of the most recent difficulties for Ukraine has been to convince its partners in Africa that the food crisis they are suffering from was artificially created by Moscow by imposing a blockade of Ukraine’s seaports. These rational pro-Ukrainian arguments have little credibility in the African information space. Instead, an a priori irrational perception of Russia as a counterweight to Africa’s former colonizers from the West remains undisputed and, consequentially, works against Ukraine.

Kushnir: What is your opinion of the current Western perception of the Russia-Ukrainian war? What narratives were present in discussions at the Warsaw Security Forum that you attended in early October?

Zolkina: In general, the perception of the Russo-Ukrainian war by Western politicians and experts is aligned with the one in Kyiv: Ukraine has to restore its control over its sovereign territory. However, there are a few differences in perceptions between the eastern and western flanks of the European Union. 

Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Czechia, and the Baltic states consider Russia’s ongoing war to be a security threat not only for Ukraine but also for themselves. This perception was articulated numerous times during the forum discussions. Also, I encountered neither any willingness of the mentioned states to accept territorial concessions from the Ukrainian side nor any belief that such concessions or other compromises restricting the sovereignty of Ukraine would lead to positive outcomes. 

The states from the EU’s eastern flank, especially the Baltic countries and Poland, have a very clear vision of how the settlement with Russia should be organized. They advocate for the collapse of the current political regime in Russia. Their representatives declare openly that Russia must be defeated militarily. It must be weakened to the point that any further aggression becomes technically, politically, and economically impossible. Such a straightforward perception of reality, in my opinion, is the one most justified. 

Putin’s dictatorship would not survive Russia’s military defeat. If Ukraine is victorious on the battlefield, this will provide the impetus not only for the removal of Putin from office but most probably for the destabilization and disintegration of Russia. Not only would political elites reshuffle their spheres of influence, national republics would probably try to secede from under Moscow’s rule and carve up states within their current borders. Ukraine’s partners from the EU’s eastern flank are in favour of dismantling the Russian Federation. They consider such a scenario seriously and weigh the various consequences.

And at the same time, the position of the European Union’s western states looks more ambiguous. On the one hand, they provide military, financial, economic, and humanitarian support to Ukraine. They say that Ukraine does not need to seek compromise with Russia. I believe that for the next five to six months Western Europe will not place much pressure on Ukraine, and Kyiv will have a green light to liberate as much of its land as possible. In winter, there will be new variables to consider, but as of now Kyiv is fully supported in its counteroffensive operations. 

On the other hand, when it comes to the defeat of Russia and its post-war fate, or the personal downfall of Putin, there is no clarity. They do not want to discuss it. And I would say there is fear and uncertainty on the side of Western Europe that the scenario of Russia’s disintegration will eventually take place. I do not see any readiness, neither in political nor in expert communities of these Western states, to seriously consider such a scenario and prepare themselves for it. For me this looks strange, because the EU’s western flank purposively avoids alternatives that anticipate radical changes in the Russian regime and territorial composition. 

Kushnir: Why should Kyiv care more about the informational presence of Ukraine in the Global South? How can this presence be boosted? 

Zolkina: In the first place, Ukraine needs to develop and strengthen its cultural and political relations with the Global South because these relations are rather poor. Also, the Global South states are members of the United Nations and have a right to vote in the General Assembly. Many procedures in the UN can be completed through the General Assembly instead of the Security Council, where Russia has veto power. Therefore, support within the General Assembly is critical for Ukraine, especially if there is a probability that the resolution condemning Russian misconduct will be vetoed at the highest level. 

Thus, Ukraine needs the support of the Global South states when establishing international tribunals or applying other international judicial mechanisms to prosecute Russian war criminals. Such prosecutions and trials, no matter what legal form they take, should be conducted under a legitimate umbrella. And most probably this umbrella will be the UN. Therefore, the more voices Ukraine gains here, the better for the restoration of justice. 

Apart from this, Ukraine should countermand the continued and blatant exploitation by Russia of the Global South states as its proxies in international organizations. The food crisis, for instance, was a scheme applied by Russia. The Kremlin intensified its relations with the African Union, played on its fears of food shortages, and made it create pressure on UN structures. In other words, these fifty countries of the African Union knocked on the UN door and declared that they had been starving and dying because of Ukraine. 

Ukraine should also start being present in the African informational space, as otherwise Russia will continue dominating it. The task for Ukraine is to make its perspectives known to the local audience and simultaneously counter Russian arguments and propaganda. The tides will not turn for Ukraine automatically, but it should make an appearance in the African informational space and respond to Russian provocations in order to have any hope of counting on anything in the future. 

One of the arguments that African politicians and experts use to explain why they do not support Ukraine, or simply abstain from crucial voting in the UN, is that the ongoing war is not of their direct concern. They raise the question of why their countries should care about a European conflict when Europe does not want to hear about their numerous conflicts. If international law was not working in their cases in Africa, then why should they pay attention to Ukraine today? One of the counter-arguments here is that Ukraine is fighting in order to make international law finally work. 

Another important instance is the Middle East. Ukraine has yet to discover and benefit from its potential. The Middle Eastern countries claim to be keeping up a political neutrality in the Russo-Ukrainian war. However, that neutrality has an “Arab spirit” to it. For instance, Qatar is considered to be a partner of the US while at the same time the public may still harbour some caution and anti-American moods. Notably, Qatar participates in the Rammstein format, a voluntary coordination format for defensive support of Ukraine. Thus, as a neutral state Qatar sends no military support to Ukraine but its representatives attend Rammstein meetings regularly because they have pretty close relations with the West. 

The Middle Eastern states, especially the Gulf area, have money and willingness to invest. Some of them, like Qatar, decided to freeze their investments in Russia. Today, these countries are waiting to see how the war ends and to offer cooperation to whomever becomes the winner. These states share rational economic thinking and pragmatic interests that dictate their foreign policy. When it comes to cooperation with far-away partners, they are looking for benefits. 

In three or five years, when Ukraine will be in the process of restoration, it will need investments. And who said that such investments should come only from Western countries? 

Kushnir: How do you envision the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine? How hard will it be to deal with Russia’s legacy on the occupied territories: atrocities, indoctrination, Russification? What long- and short-lasting effects will this legacy bring and how will it influence reconstruction? 

Zolkina: Above all, I want to highlight two aspects of Ukraine’s reconstruction. The first is purely economic. It is focused on the creation of domestic and international platforms for investments, on reaching a consensus on reconstruction priorities, as well as on the negotiation of deals between investment partners. This aspect is about answering questions about who is responsible for what, how much money is needed for which specific task, and how to manage tasks and distribute responsibilities between the regional, local, and central authorities in Ukraine. It is a technical process to a large extent. 

Moreover, some reconstruction projects are already being implemented. Certainly, local infrastructure and public utilities need to be repaired immediately after they become damaged or worn out. Some infrastructure requires constant maintenance. Therefore, economic reconstruction is also about ad hoc ideas and ad hoc means, which are parts of bigger projects that will be fully launched after the war, when an agreement on the fate of Russia is achieved. 

The second aspect of reconstruction is more about society and its return to normalcy. I am speaking here of people who experienced the occupation, stress from the myriad ways Russia is present in Ukraine, and other violations of their human rights and civil liberties. For these people and their return to normalcy, the duration of the occupation matters. Apart from this, much depends on how smoothly Ukraine’s army expels Russians from the occupied territories. The less destruction the liberated villages and towns encounter, the faster their residents will be able to restore their pre-war lifestyles. The task for Ukraine’s army here is to inflict as little damage as possible. Ukrainians should avoid using artillery or assaulting the property of locals, which is what the Russians did in the western parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts when they first levelled all the population points and then captured the scorched earth. 

Of course, Ukraine’s cautiousness in liberating occupied territories will take more time. Local residents will have to endure more stress, which will take its psychological toll. However, it is one story when Russians abandon the occupied settlements and the properties and land remain untouched; the price then is not too high for the local residents. Another story is when the liberation follows a fierce battle and is accompanied by massive destruction and numerous deaths among the civilians. Social recovery from such experiences will take much longer. As I see things now, unless a professional and well-trained Russian army miraculously appears to block its way, Ukraine will not stop until all of its territories are liberated. 

I do not believe it will take decades for the liberated societies to reconstruct themselves under Ukrainian rule. The implications of occupation will be mainly psychological, they will concern the feelings of the people. Instead, all these artificial attempts to de-Ukrainize, forcibly Russify, or impose the “Russian World” (russkii mir) of its own cultural and political understanding will not take root. I do not believe that the legacy of the Russian occupation is something that Ukraine needs to be afraid of—for example, in terms of how to tackle it. Therefore, as just Russia withdraws, many of the problems will disappear on their own. In fact, in the currently occupied territories there has never been high support for Russia or demand for some kind of russki mir.

Kushnir: Do you think that ordinary Russians will ever understand and acknowledge their contribution to the war? Will they ever feel remorse? 

Zolkina: Maybe I will sound hawkish in this interview (indeed, perhaps I really am!), but I think that the military defeat of Russia is the only possibility for Russian society to conceivably change their perception of the world. It is very important that they accept some kind of common political responsibility for the war. Because what we see today is an attempt to distance themselves from their political elites and the overall Russian system. Ordinary Russians comfortably claim that they have nothing in common with their elites, or that they cannot influence their elites, or that they are fine with the invasion as long as it does not touch them personally. 

Even now, when many of them are being mobilized, forcibly deployed on the battlefield and risking getting killed, Russians are not appealing to their government. It seems that they are failing to establish, or do not want to establish, the cause-and-effect links and understand the situation in which they are. Instead, they often appeal to the Western governments and blame them, for instance, for not issuing humanitarian visas for people escaping from the system. Ordinary Russians perceive themselves as victims. Even the threat of mobilization and heavy losses that their army is suffering are not enough for Russians to understand that they cannot just keep their eyes blind. 

And this is why I think that only in the case of Russia’s defeat there is a chance for the revision of public opinion. Make no mistake, public opinion has always backed the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policies, be they the policies of Russian emperors, Bolsheviks, or Putin. People are fine with the expansion of their state at the expense of others.

And this is why if public opinion is not shaken by the military defeat on the ground, Russians will not draw any useful conclusions and we will have an even worse situation in future. When I think of a partial defeat of Russia, of some kind of compromise “to save face,” I see no room for collective reassessment. Russians will likely feel that they did not win and had to withdraw under pressure. They will feel humiliated and instead of concentrating on their losses they will think of revanche. Their logic will be similar to the times between the First and Second Chechen wars, when they fought and failed but felt that the matter had not been finished and that they needed to return. This is why Russians should experience a complete defeat today which will—maybe—destroy nation-wide passive support for their system.
As a public opinion researcher, I have always stressed that if people are not in favour of the aggressive policy of their state but they remain passively loyal, meaning “let it be, but just do not touch me,” then this still counts as support. Because what really matters is when people speak against.

Mariia Zolkina

Mariia Zolkina, Head of Regional Security and Conflict Studies at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF), Co-Founder of the Kalmius Group. Works as a researcher and public opinion analyst, particularly in the area of public perceptions of foreign policy issues, Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic prospects, security, and reintegration of temporarily occupied territories. Since 2014 she has been providing expert commentary on the political component of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, especially regarding the Donbas, and the socio-political implications of the conflict at both national and international levels. She is the author of a number of policy papers as well as publications in prominent Ukrainian and international mass media. Mariia has been developing a variety of opinion polls regarding conflict-related issues and analytical reports on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, including reports aimed at designing official public policies. She serves regularly as a consultant to international organizations on negotiation strategies and the socio-political implications of Russian aggression.

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