“China is very happy. The decline of Russia means its rise”: Taras Kuzio, the academic who predicted the invasion of Crimea

The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to advance before the perplexed eyes of the world.

Russian troops have destroyed entire cities as millions of people try to escape a devastated country.

The dramatic war conflict threatens to be the most transformative and dangerous event in Europe since the WWII.

What will decide this war and how could it end? Was the Russian invasion really predictable? Could Putin back down in the face of Western economic sanctions? And how much hope should we have in the peace negotiations?

In an interview with BBC Mundo, the British academic and expert in Ukrainian politics, economy and security, Taras Kuzio, Try to answer these and other questions.

In 2010, Kuzio predicted the Russian annexation of Crimeawhich happened in 2014 and unleashed one of the worst crises between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

And just a couple of weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he published a book called “Russian Nationalism and the Russo-Ukrainian War” where he explains in depth the crisis between the two countries and analyzes President Vladimir Putin’s alleged obsession with kyiv.

Taras Kuzio
Taras Kuzio is a professor at the National University of kyiv and a research associate at the Henry Jackson Society in London.

How surprising was the Russian invasion of Ukraine to you?

I have been very critical of Western academics and Russia pundits because they have been downplaying and denying the existence of nationalism in Putin’s Russia. And that is not true. Putin has had a strong obsession with Ukraine since at least the mid-2000s.

When he became president in 2012, he did so believing that he would go down in history as the aggregator of the Russian lands, which includes the Ukrainians and Belarusians. Nationalism in Russia is reflected in pre-Soviet tsarist nationalism, which denies the existence of Ukrainians.

Putin has long been arguing that southern and eastern Ukraine was wrongly included by Lenin within Soviet Ukraine, when it was part of the USSR. In fact, he is quite critical of Lenin for having done this.

Is that, then, the main reason that led Putin to invade Ukraine?

The invasion is a product of both Putin’s evolution as a Russian nationalist and a Ukrainian denier, as well as an evolution in his perception of what is unfolding in Ukraine.

For him, and for the Kremlin, a Nazi today is basically any Ukrainian who supports a Western orientation. He is not the extreme right. He is any Ukrainian.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What does Putin mean when he talks about denazifying Ukraine?

He is talking about an identity that has emerged in Ukraine over the last 30 years that is pro-Western. And he wants to replace it with a liberal Russian identity, similar to that of Belarus, a country that is run by a pro-Russian dictator, supports the same kind of historical myth as Putin’s Russia, and is also anti-Western.

Putin thought that the people of Ukraine would welcome him because, for him, they have been repressed by these Nazis who are, in turn, supported by the Americans. Putin felt that he would come to liberate these little Russians from the American colonialists and the Nazis. It’s strange, but that’s what he really believed.

That wasin his opinion, Putin’s mistake?

It’s one of three miscalculations he’s made. I think another big mistake was about the West. He believed that the West was stagnating, that it was divided. And he miscalculated his answer. In the Kremlin they believed that the sanctions that would be imposed against Russia would be just as weak as those in 2014 (when it annexed Crimea).

The third miscalculation was his misperception about Ukrainians not really being “liberal Russians”. They are Ukrainians.

Believes that the sanctions westerners will push back to Putin?

I think they will have a tremendous effect on the Russian economy. The Kremlin was stunned by the broad agreement of all Western countries and by the harshness of the sanctions. They never expected Germany, for example, to do this.

The big sanction that would destroy the Russian government’s economy would be a total ban on Russian oil and gas, which countries like Germany have already said they cannot do immediately. They need time to find other providers.

Western sanctions "will have a tremendous effect on the Russian economy"says Taras Kuzio.

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Western sanctions “will have a tremendous effect on the Russian economy,” says Taras Kuzio.

But these sanctions do not have an immediate impact. It takes a few months to really see the result.

And what could happen?

Russia has been cut off from globalization. This means that Russia as a great power will enter a faster decline and it will also mean the rise of China as the dominant alternative to the West.

The international image of Russia, which is very important, has been badly damaged. Nobody wants to have anything to do with Russia anymore. Nobody wants to work or trade with them, 400 Western companies have left this country.

This will allow China to rise as the dominant alternative anti-Western power.

Speaking of China, what role is this country playing in the war?

China is very happy. Russia’s decline means its rise. They share a position against the West but the difference between the two countries is that China is a power on the rise and Russia is a power on the decline. And the difference is also that China has a really strong military. Russia no.

Russia was supposed to be a great military power. And now people are wondering why they haven’t been able to defeat Ukraine.

So I think that ultimately this war will define China as the new dominant anti-Western power, because Russia will have shown itself to be a country in decline.

But thenbecause China has not imposed sanctions against Russia?

It’s not just China. Israel and Turkey have also not imposed sanctions. China will continue to blame the US and NATO for this because China is always going to be anti-US and anti-NATO.

Three years ago, it was a joint alliance of Russia and China against the West. Now, this war confirms that Russia is China’s junior partner.

Putin miscalculated everything in these things. He believed that China would help him, and I don’t think it will.

Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Do you think Putin is upset about how events have unfolded?

Of course, because the original plan was that it was going to be very easy. In a maximum of 2 days they were going to occupy the Ukraine and they were going to expel these Nazis and their American sponsors.

Putin never treated Zelensky seriously because he was a comedian. He was not a real politician. He believed that he would flee kyiv and they could install a Ukrainian (Alexander) Lukashenko. That was the plan and it completely failed.

How much hope should we have in the peace negotiations?

We must always bear in mind that there are liars in Moscow. We can’t believe anything they say. They have been lying for the last eight years that there is no Russian military in Ukraine.

Second, the West can only agree to lift sanctions if Ukraine agrees to a peace deal.

Destruction in Ukraine

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And one of the big demands is that Russia withdraw its troops to the same position they had before the invasion. And that, I think, is going to be a big problem for Putin.

I think Zelensky is going to try to come to some kind of peace agreement because that’s better than civilians getting killed. But I think nobody is naive about Russia anymore. And that is a factor.

What will define this war?

What will define this war is a complete divorce of Russia and Ukraine; 100% of Ukraine will hate Russia for the next 20, 30 or 40 years. There will be no pro-Russian party, no pro-Russian religion.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky.

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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky.

And this will also create distrust among all the neighbors towards Russia, because what Putin has done has gone too far: destroy villages and kill civilians, with a quarter of the Ukrainian population displaced. It has made Ukrainian soldiers and politicians extremely angry.

It’s the kind of bloody divorce that didn’t happen in 1991 when the USSR disintegrated. In a way, this is what should have happened then.

How believes that will finish the war between Russia and Ukraine?

Zelensky is not a crazy nationalist. He has always been someone willing to compromise. The Russians have always demanded Ukraine’s surrender, not a compromise. But perhaps now, due to the state of the war, Russia is more willing to move from demanding Ukraine’s surrender to accepting some compromise.

The commitments would be something like Ukraine’s neutrality or Russia’s withdrawal from the territories it occupied during the invasion.

Millions of people have had to flee Ukraine.

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Millions of people have had to flee Ukraine.

But Russia does not have much time left. The sanctions are going to collapse its economy more and more as the months go by and it will show that it is a country in decline.

The impact of war, the destruction of military equipment and the death of soldiers will also have a major impact.

Putin’s position becomes less and less stable as time goes on. Until the invasion, I believed that Putin would be president for life. But now I don’t think so anymore… his position is not so secure because there is a lot of discontent. For the nationalists, what has happened to his army is a shame.

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