Interview with the head of the Institute for Strategic Studies: how the Minsk peace talks are going, what to expect from Russia and what does the war in Nagorno-Karabakh teach.
Since August 2019, Oleksandr Lytvynenko has headed the National Institute for Strategic Studies (NISS), which was conceived as a center for creating analytics to help presidents and the security sector. He built his entire career in the field of security and defense: he worked in the Security Service of Ukraine and the National Security and Defense Council, at the beginning of the war with Russia he was appointed as Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, he is a major-general (in reserve).
In an interview with LIGA.net, Lytvynenko told what Ukraine should bet on in the war with Russia, why the Minsk peace talks are "difficult is not that word", whether it is realistic to hold elections in Donbass in March 2021 and what is the problem of its reintegration.
"DOES THE THREAT OF THE GREAT WAR REMAIN FOR US? IT REMAINS"
In his new book "How to Defeat Russia in the War of the Future", analyst Volodymyr Gorbulin, who has access to the offices of all presidents, says: Russia will not leave us alone and will press for another decade, with Putin or even without him. Politically, economically, and if necessary, it will launch a large-scale military scenario again. How do you assess such a forecast? What to expect from Russia?
Russia, of course, will try to influence the processes in Ukraine. Especially if she doesn't like these processes. Is there still a threat of a great war for us? It remains. Russia is increasing its military force, they are preparing for possible hostilities. Is this option imminent? No it is not. The Soviet Union had been preparing for the war with the United States for 40 years, stamping out tens of thousands of tanks. And the war never happened.
But we must be prepared for the fact that Russia will remain as a constant factor in both Ukraine's foreign and domestic policies. That is why we should look for a model of coexistence with Russia. Even during the Cold War, there was talk of peaceful coexistence. It is desirable that it will become peaceful in our country as well.
Do you think it is possible to achieve peaceful coexistence with the aggressor?
The only survival tool next to Russia is to become strong and pursue a meaningful policy. As stated in the national security strategy, Ukraine should act in three directions.
Restraint: We need such Armed Forces and security sector bodies that could inflict unacceptable losses on the aggressor. Internal resilience: so that no one can exploit our weaknesses. And interaction is, first of all, the search for external support through the development of relations. In addition, we need to maintain communication channels not only with partners.
It is clear that we will not enter into good neighborly relations with Russia until they leave the occupied territories, and thus restore our territorial integrity. The issue of negotiations on Donbass is one of the two key issues of our bilateral relations. The first is Donbass. But when we talk about Donbass, it is impossible to remove Crimea from the agenda a priori.
What should Ukraine bet on in the war with Russia? On diplomacy, negotiations and sanctions pressure from the West (with questionable postponed prospects) - or to strengthen the military component? What scenario does Bankova lean towards?
At one time we were very fond of the soft power theory. Then it was the hard power. But the same Joseph Nye, who came up with these concepts, said that power must be smart - a reasonable, meaningful power. You need to use every opportunity. But let's be honest: our GDP per capita compared to Russia is three times less. Our future will be guaranteed when GDP will be at least the same as in Russia.
We can say 150 times that the Russians have oil and we don't have it. But Estonians also don’t have oil. And GDP per capita is twice as high as that of Russians. The Poles don’t have oil. The Japanese also have no oil, and not only them. Oil is not a panacea.
You see, globally we will survive in relations with Russia only in one case. When our social model will be more efficient and more free. When resources will be used more efficiently.
Does Zelensky administration understand it?
I think so. At least, we are working on this understanding.
Why I insist on freedom . In today's world, it will not be possible to form a military camp. More precisely, it is possible, but not for a long period. We are not North Korea after all.
Over the past six years, Ukraine has radically increased the percentage of funding for the Armed Forces. We have already significantly exceeded 3% of GDP. If we continue to increase this percentage, it will have a negative impact on the economy, especially in crisis conditions.
To ensure a reliable increase in funding, we need to increase GDP and the budget itself. The threshold will increase - with the same stable percentage, the amount of money for the army will increase. The percentage of funding for Poles is much lower, and the budget is 2.5 times larger than ours.
"IF WE LEAVE MINSK, THE RUSSIANS WILL ONLY BE HAPPY"
Recent Minsk peace talks have shown that the Russians are blocking all issues. The issues have been binded first to the local elections by Russians , now to the "road map". They behave in such a way that even the patient Kravchuk loses his temper. They are trying to disrupt the Norman format. This is complete sabotage. What is the point of these negotiations? Did you take part in them?
I saw them, I will say so. They are held in high tones.
Are these negotiations difficult? There is no that word. I can't even find a censorship description. They are extremely complicated. Russia always pretends that they are not a party to the negotiations: you are negotiating with ORDLO, and we with the OSCE are mediators.
But it was in Minsk that we managed to significantly reduce the intensity of shelling, several exchanges took place. Specific issues related to checkpoints, demining and so on are being solving. It's good? Yes, it is good.
But since August, Kravchuk says, the Russians are blocking everything, Gryzlov is openly lying.
In general, if you look at the track of "Minsk", it is very similar to the cardiogram of a person at death. No activity - a surge, the issue was resolved. And again there is a plateau.
Can we leave the Minsk format? Theoretically we can. We can do anything. But what will that mean? We will destroy the existing format to which sanctions are binded, and most importantly - what's next? For some reason, many of our experts and politicians think that the West, specifically the United States, France, and Germany, will protect our national interests. But they do not owe us anything. And so thank them so much for what they did.
Does Ukraine want to fulfill Minsk? Minsk is bad, very bad. In its current form, it is extremely difficult. For the implementation of Minsk agreements it is necessary to correct them. If we can't solve big issues, let's discuss practical things. Which will help to protect the interests of our citizens, alleviate their suffering.
Putin also doesn't like the Norman format. Because there are no ORDLO, but there are Germans and Frenchmen. And there they have to speak specifically. The Russians are coming up with loopholes, why it's bad, why they don't need to hold the next meeting.
Garmash believes that Russia is blocking the exchange of prisoners precisely to say: why do we need a new Norman meeting, we have not fulfilled Paris yet.
Absolutely. They do not want to implement it. If we leave Minsk today, hitting the table with our fists, the Russians will only be happy to say: so who is to blame.
Russia is the successor to the Soviet Union. A wonderful book was once published in the Union: "Where does the threat to peace come from?" It described how the United States and the "aggressive NATO bloc" want to destroy world peace. So, our exit from the Minsk format will give a wonderful argument in the spirit of this book to Russians: how the Ukrainians destroyed the hopes of the "peaceful fraternal people."
The Roadmap for Donbass proposes: withdraw Russian troops in early 2021, repeal all illegal Russian decisions, restore border control, expand the OSCE mission and hold elections there. Zelensky inner-circle did not exclude that such elections would take place in March 2021 Zelensky administration did not rule out that such elections would take place in March 2021. Is it possible?
Already it has not been. It takes 60 days to run a campaign. If the election is in March, then it should begin in late January. And for this purpose in a month and a half it is necessary to withdraw the Russian troops, to go through all the procedures that Kravchuk spoke about. It is too late.
But in this regard, a sequence is clearly drawn that can ensure the end of the conflict and the beginning of the safe reintegration of Donbass.
What is this for Putin and Russia?
Never say never. Suppose Putin will leave. Sooner or later...
Someday he will leave. Russia's next president may be looking for a solution with the West. Could he make any concessions? Yes, he could. And we need to be ready for that. And we should be ready for military scenario also.We should clearly understand our possibility.
Imagine, the Russians say: well, we're leaving. What's next?
Recently, Reznikov said the same thing: the main thing for us is not to take Donbass back as a tumor with which we do not know what to do. How to do it, if there has been a war for seven years, and Russian propaganda teaches the people of Donbass to hate Ukraine?
I would not compare with a tumor. But yes, we must clearly understand: even the full withdrawal of Russian troops will not solve the problem. There are a lot of people who hate Ukraine - this is an objective fact. There is a historically proven way to solve such problems: "fighting the gang underground." I'm sure this is not our way. And no one in today's world will allow it. It should be understood that the restoration of Donbass requires huge investments. We do not have such money.
So we still have to look for some other way. Will it be simple? A priori, it cannot be 100% simple. But to pass it, we need to clearly understand where to go.
Why is it about elections in Minsk at all. This is a classic way of resolving a conflict: finding a legitimate interlocutor for the central government. Even the full implementation of Minsk is not the end of the story, it is only its beginning. The Croatian scenario is often talked about.
So, in those territories of Eastern Slavonia that were not recaptured, they were compromisedly taken away, there are still problems.
Donbass is also for decades?
What is the horror of conflicts? Machiavelli wrote that they began wars when they wanted but ended them when it was possible. Earlier, we often said: the keys to the conflict were in the Kremlin. Already they have been not.
There is a whole theory of peace building. Two stages: the peace is negative and the peace is positive. Negative when there are a ceasefire and a cessation of hostilities. That is conventionally called freezing. You can go to this stage. And we are getting closer to it. Positive is when disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration are gradually carried out. And because of this, mechanisms are being formed to maintain a stable peace, to prevent the resumption of hostilities.
Ceasefire is the first task. And then we need to create a situation in which the war will not start again. Recurrences in such conflicts are a very common story.
Is the same story in Azerbaijan and Armenia?
The situation there is not about our situation a little bit. There is an ethnic conflict between them, with a religious basis. But this conflict shows us that a negative peace does not guarantee a resumption of hostilities. Azerbaijan was preparing for this very seriously. It created an advantage, formed the modern armed forces. Azerbaijan found allies, and not only Turkey – but also Israel. And it partially resolved the issue by force.
Zelensky declares: if peace talks would not work, he has "plan B". What is this plan? Arestovych says - peacekeepers? Why did Bankova decide that Putin would agree?
If we could not persuade the Russians to give border control back and withdraw their forces from Donbass, we need to go the other way then.
These are separation of troops and creation of a security zone. Someone has to control this area. If the vacuum is not filled by peacekeepers, hostilities may resume. This is not a solution to the conflict, but it’s freezing.
Is Russia's consent for peacekeepers needed?
Certainly. To bring in peacekeepers the consent of both parties is required. This issue has been considered since 2015. Our demand is peacekeepers at the border and on the line of contact. The Russians are categorically against such a scenario, because they will not be able to feed Donbass with weapons and manpower.
"ACHIEVING A SUSTAINABLE END TO THE WAR IS POSSIBLE. AND BEFORE 2024"
Military experts are increasingly saying that the future is in high-tech armies with clear logistics, cyber defense, and strong intelligence. And the wars of the future cyber defense are robot wars. And that Ukraine urgently needs to start reformatting its army.
What exactly is needed, and not only in the Armed Forces - to change the focus.
The situation with the reform of the Security Service is very revealing. Why are we reforming the Security Service? Everyone says: to fulfill the requirement of the EU and NATO. This is a good deed and very correct. But we must do the Security Service reform for ourselves! In order to strengthen the counterintelligence regime. As for the Security Service, such a discussion is not even going on.
Regarding the reform of the Armed Forces. We should clearly understand what exactly we need and what we can get with our extremely limited resources. Why are we forced to talk about Russia's asymmetric response? Where does this asymmetry come from? It's just that we don't have the money to form a symmetrical army. We must try to defeat by the intellect. Look for cheaper solutions. But for this we need to understand what our hostile can do.
Gorbulin states that Zelensky's team does not have decision on the development of the Armed Forces; The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine under General Khomchak did not even develop a realistic program for the creation of a professional Armed Forces until 2030, and "it's sad." You can talk as much as you want about a high-tech army, but if the President's Office does not see an urgent need for this – what is to discuss?
At least, we need to understand what kind of army we want to form by 2030. We really need this image. The army is a rather inertial mechanism. Purchases of weapons and military equipment, especially their production – it will take the years. Decisions must be made under the doctrine of the use of the Armed Forces.
In addition, it should be taken into account that we are on the verge when the Soviet armaments will outdate not only morally but also physically. And we will have to embark on large-scale rearmament according to NATO standards. Note that the country does not have enough money, and they are not expected. And it is unlikely to be able to get such money for free.
On the other hand, I don't really like when people start to discuss the state development strategies for 30 or 50 years. You can write a strategy for 100 years, without questions. Still, no one will see the result. We have been floating since the second half of the 1990s, when our direction of movement was generally defined. It is very serious.
But even more seriously, this is not a manifestation of our uniqueness, but part of a global trend. Look at the November proposals of French President Macron - an extremely high level of abstraction, interesting philosophical constructions, and minimum of specifics. Europe must find strategic autonomy. Fine, but what should be done for this? And this is not a lack of proposals, this is a feature of today's world, in which one crisis follows another, and their depth and seriousness are only growing.
Take a look at the proposals of the NATO Development Strategy Group. They have the same approach.
Now is not the time for new detailed strategies, now is the time to define common guidelines and tools and their possible implementation in the corridor of admissions.
In a previous interview, you predicted that by 2024 it is possible to end hostilities in the Donbass and start building peace. How realistic do you think this forecast is now?
Ukraine has already managed to reduce the intensity of the war. Achieving a lasting cessation of hostilities, I'm sure, is possible. And before 2024. But resolving the conflict is far from a fact.
Does the government rely on NISD analysis in decision-making: reforms, war?
The Institute is involved. We have a good work with the National Security and Defense Council, with the Office as well, our specialists are in demand.
How exactly does communication with the authorities take place?
They can call or consult with one of the specialists. Stacks of papers are no longer needed. It's not about tons of paper. But it is about proposals. When I first came to the Institute, my first decision was that the analytical note could not be more than five pages. And I adhere to it strictly. The head officials do not read more than two or five pages. And never read.
When we prepared the analytical report for the Address by President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the Verkhovna Rada, we reduced it from the traditional 340-400 pages (plus another 200 pages of statistics) to 50. The present time is not in the time of great forms.
Who exactly are you in contact with? Ermak, Danilov, Taran, Reznikov, Kravchuk?
A good expert team has been formed at the Institute. Our specialists actively work in various working groups, take part in meetings with the President, the Head of the Office, the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, and members of the Government.