The war in Ukraine has become a real trial not only for Ukrainians but for the whole world. What awaits Russia, and does it really need strict control with a firm hand in order not to fall apart? What is the position of Belarus in this war and what awaits us: the disappearance or a new window of opportunity? What role will Ukraine play in the new Europe? We talked about this with Alexander Friedman, Doctor of Historical Sciences (Institute for European Ethnology, University of Berlin, Germany).
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, voices are heard more and more loudly that the collapse of Russia is inevitable. It’s not just the intellectuals who say this. Putin, in his latest speeches last week, said that the goal of the West is to “dismember” Russia. At a recent concert in Luzhniki on the occasion of the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, the slogan was heard many times: we will not allow the collapse of the country. Is the collapse of Russia because of the war possible?
The discussion that Russia will not exist within the territorial boundaries in which it currently exists, that it will begin to fall apart is eternal. It has been going on for many years in different contexts. And when big, terrible events like war happen, discussions about the breakup of Russia escalate again.
Today we do not see any serious separatist movement in the Russian Federation, at least on the surface. But what will definitely disappear as a result of these events is the Putin regime. What Russia will look like territorially, whether it will remain within its borders, what will be the fate of Crimea – these are all open questions. If we talk about it now, it will be speculation. But this war has definitely pronounced a death sentence on the Putin system. Neither politically, nor economically, nor ideologically, it will survive. What will come in its place may not be democratic, but it will definitely be better than what we have today.
Let’s look at the history of Russia in the 20th century: when there is a war, and it goes badly for the Russian side, it leads to the disappearance of the dominant system: the Russian Empire in the First World War or the Soviet Empire in 1991. The war factor is very strong and important. If the First World War had not happened, the Russian Empire, most likely, would have continued to exist. But the war is going on, everything is going very badly for Russia, the economic condition is deteriorating, and the result is known to us: the first and second revolutions, the monarchical system disappears, the empire actually disintegrates, the Bolsheviks come to power.
If we take the Soviet period, many researchers agree that the participation of the Soviet Union in the Afghan war greatly influenced the mood of the population, the contradictions within society. Nobody understood this war in the Soviet Union. This is not the main, but one of the strong factors that influenced the development of events in the second half of the 80s and early 90s: the Soviet Union was forced to adopt a policy of perestroika, the attitude of the population towards the regime worsened. As a result, the USSR collapsed.
And here we have this factor of war again. Inside Russia, there are contradictions between various ethnic and religious groups, which is understandable in conditions of dictatorship, authoritarianism, where all manifestations of freedom are suppressed and a great-power ideology reigns. Such contradictions intensify with the war, but at what level they are now, we do not know.
What we see for sure is that there is a war going on, it is developing unfavorably for Russia. The losses are great, after a certain time, they will be more than in 10 years in Afghanistan.
Unlike Afghanistan, the current war is “understandable” for Russians thanks to Russian propaganda. According to independent researchers, about 71% of Russian citizens support the war in Ukraine. Of course, one can argue whether one can trust the answers of people in an authoritarian country, but nevertheless, in Russia, an overwhelming minority of the population opposes the war.
Later, when the war is over, and I am sure that Ukraine will stand, it will be very difficult for Russians to say that it is Putin who is bad, that he unleashed the war, and the population was against it. This myth is very common in the West.
Undoubtedly, these events will push for changes in Russia. They are already happening, and these are changes for the worse so far. Putin launched these processes. I am sure that Russia in the form in which it existed before the war will not exist.
We may wake up tomorrow and suddenly find out that Vladimir Putin has passed away after a long illness, and this wording can mean anything. This can take weeks, months, in the worst case, years. But fate is predetermined.
You noted cases in history when the war became a trigger for the transition to a new political system in Russia. But often attempts to democratize the country led to the establishment of totalitarianism: let’s take the Bolsheviks and the totalitarian regime of Stalin or Putin’s regime after the collapse of the USSR. The fate of being a dictatorship, having a strong hand to rule – is it predetermined in the case of Russia so that it remains a state?
Democrats are not born, democrats are made. This also applies to Russian society and the state. The point of view that Russia cannot be a democratic country is very discriminatory. We then say that this society has no chance of democracy and cannot be democratic. You can’t say that. But indeed, attempts at liberal reforms, attempts at democratization were not successful in Russia. If you look at their historical experience, everything looks very bad: each such attempt ended in the establishment of dictatorial regimes. And today we are dealing with a regime that has atomic weapons and can start the Third World War.
But if it hasn’t happened yet, it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen at all. Let’s take German history as an example. Germany at the end of the 19th century and in the first third of the 20th century was a more advanced country than Russia. But if we look at democratic tendencies, the Germans also had big problems with this. The attempt to establish democracy in Germany ended in 1933 with the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship. After the Second World War, there were discussions that the Germans and democracy are incompatible. But look what happened in the end. Most Germans today are democratic. Not without difficulties, but the re-education of the majority of society succeeded. If it worked out with the Germans, why can’t it work out with the Russians?
Of course, in many respects, this is a different case. Russia will be very difficult. There is an opinion in the West that there is such a cruel tyrant Putin, who today has become an absolute evil, and there is a Russian population, which for the most part either does not understand this regime or rejects it. This is a very naive presentation. The fact that a large number of Russians remain under the influence of propaganda and do not understand what terrible crimes are now taking place in Ukraine is no excuse.
Putin decided to play all-in. Now, either we will get a world in which the values that the Russian state embodies will reign: contempt for the individual, violence, and so on, or this regime will go away. If Putin’s regime collapses, the question is what will happen after that. Will democracy in Russia get a new chance, will people with at least certain democratic values come to power? The West—Europe and the US—should do everything they can to make sure Russia succeeds this time. This is in the interests not only of Russia and its population but also of ours.
If this chance for democratization does not materialize, Russia will have an authoritarian regime, but not as aggressive as Putin’s. A light autocracy that will no longer go to war is bad but better than today’s regime.
Lukashenka has repeatedly stated that without Russia there will be no Belarus, understanding Belarus as his own regime. Is it really true? How do you see the position of Belarus in this war?
Belarus in this war is a victim of Putin’s game. The situation is obvious: if Putin wins, Belarus will disappear, if Putin disappears, there will be a free and most likely democratic Belarus.
The fate of Lukashenka is determined. He has tied himself to Putin, and now he does not have good options. If Putin wins, Lukashenka with his ambitions and contradictions will definitely not be needed. In the new conditions, Putin in Belarus will need an absolutely loyal executor, with whom there will be no questions.
If Putin loses and changes begin in Russia, then Russia will start taking care of itself. If Putin’s regime collapses, Lukashenka’s regime also collapses, he simply has no chance. How this will happen is another question.
As for Belarus, it is in a historical position – and a very bad one. There is a war going on in Ukraine, but Ukrainians decide their own fate, they can influence it. Belarus, unfortunately, no longer decides its fate. On the one hand, we have the repressive regime of Lukashenka, on the other hand, we have a Russian military presence on our territory, and it is clear that if processes begin to take place in Belarus that Russia does not like, it will take advantage of this military presence. In fact, this is an occupation.
If Putin wins and takes control of Ukraine, Belarus will simply disappear. The only question is whether any attributes of an independent state will be preserved here.
If Putin fails, a window of opportunity will open for Belarus. And completely new, more favorable. After all, Russia without Putin will be weak (at least at first), it will take care of itself, and if it still tries to influence something in other countries, it will be insignificant. We will return to the situation of 1991. If this historic opportunity is seized, serious decisions will need to be made very quickly, without useless arguments and discussions. This is the chance that Belarus lost in the early 1990s when democratic forces failed to come to power, make the necessary changes and escape from Moscow’s control. Watching the democratic forces in exile, I see that they understand this situation and are preparing for it.
After the war, what will be the attitude towards Belarus and Belarusians in the world?
The question is what else Lukashenka will have time to do. If the situation remains at the current level, this is, of course, bad, this is a stain in the history of Belarus, a very difficult time that will have to be comprehended in order to understand how it happened that Belarus ended up in such a situation. In Belarus, the mood is not the same as in Russia, the majority of Belarusians oppose the war. But why Belarus was used in such a way, how we can continue to build relations not only with the West but above all with the Ukrainians – this question will definitely arise, it will have to be dealt with.
But as Lukashenka himself emphasizes, the red line has not yet been crossed. This line is the participation of the Belarusian military in the war. But there should be no illusions. They are not there, not because Lukashenka does not want it, but because Russia has not yet decided to use them there.
We can only hope that Belarus will be lucky and there will be no Belarusians there. In this case, it will be easier to overcome, rethink this shame. If the Belarusian military goes to Ukraine, it will be a disaster.
It is already obvious that the world after the war will not be the same. The question arose of the effectiveness of international structures (UN, NATO and others), which were supposed to provide security, but which could not do anything to prevent Russian aggression. Oleksiy Arestovych, Advisor to the Office of the President of Ukraine, said in one of his interviews that Ukraine has a chance to change the direction of civilization and will play a completely different role in Europe. What do you think the world will be like after the war? What questions will it ask itself?
The war will end, but the images of what happened will remain. The question is how Mariupol could take place in the 21st century. How did we get to the point where this was possible? From the western side: why didn’t they manage to prevent this? What is NATO, the UN, the European Union worth? From the Russian side: why do we commit such crimes? From the Ukrainian side: how did we endure it all, how to live on if Mariupol was in your life?
Mariupol is not only the tragedy of this city, it is the tragedy of Ukraine, Europe and the whole world. These moral questions will arise, but much will depend on how the war ends. Russia can win only if the Ukrainian cities and the Ukrainian people are destroyed.
Today Russia has become a problem for the entire civilized world. But above all, it is a problem for the Russians themselves. Russia in the historical perspective is waiting for the fate of Germany after the war. For Ukrainians, Mariupol will be a symbol of tragedy and heroism. And for Russia – a symbol of shame. They will have to make excuses and learn to live with these crimes.
As for Ukraine, Arestovych is certainly right. Today Europe is changing. I watched with delight the speech of Volodymyr Zelensky in front of the Bundestag. This is a self-confident person speaking from a position of moral superiority. Today in Ukraine people are fighting for values, their Motherland, freedom, the democratic way. According to various polls, they have determined for themselves: either we will survive as a free Ukrainian state, or we will perish. If Lukashenka had ended up in this place, there would have been immediate capitulation on his part, because, for people like him and Putin, there are no values. Ukraine must endure because it is simply impossible to live with the idea that the ugly evil is winning.
In the Europe of the future, Ukraine will play a different role, it will be an example for everyone. If today there is a real, valuable Europe, then this is Ukraine. They have come a long way in these weeks.
After the war, the whole world will re-evaluate what happened. The life that was before the war will no longer be. But there is a chance that we will wake up after this tragedy and come to a better Europe, where there will be more democracy, freedom and values. Ukraine embodies this hope. Every person for whom democratic values mean something should ask themselves today: what I personally can do to make Ukraine win. After all, if Ukraine wins, we will all win. If Ukraine loses, then after a certain time we can lose democratic Europe.