An Interview with Mary Kaldor: Insights into the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

An Interview with Mary Kaldor: Insights into the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

In late March 2022, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor Mary Kaldor, a Professor Emeritus of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science, to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine.  This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision. 

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Would you mind getting started by sharing your thoughts on how we’ve ended up here? 

Professor Mary Kaldor: The current situation in Ukraine is tragic. And how did we end up here? The problem is the nature of the Russian regime, which involves a mixture of ethnic nationalism; extreme forms of masculinity, patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia; and crony capitalism, what my colleague Alex de Waal calls the political marketplace, where power is about money. The fashionable market fundamentalism that came into being in the 1990s in centrally planned economies such as Russia is also a factor here. There was a recipe for transforming them into liberal capitalist societies through liberalization of trade, privatization of state enterprises, and stabilization of budgets, and it was this recipe together with dependence on rentier income from oil and gas that produced the system of crony capitalism.. What we got in Russia was criminalized kleptocracy, not liberal capitalism; during the years of the Soviet Union, the market was illegal, so people understood the legalization of the market as the legalization of stealing. If you understand Russia as a criminalized kleptocracy, then democracy in Ukraine represents an incredible threat to that. When thinking about Russia’s goals in Ukraine might be, it’s possible that Russia’s aim is just to reduce Ukraine to a kind of long, intractable conflict – preferring that to a Ukrainian democracy on its border which could have an influence inside Russia.  

The regime has also become gradually more aggressive over the years – with interventions in Georgia, and then in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. A lot of people ask “well, isn’t Russia only doing this because it fears the expansion of NATO? So, isn’t NATO responsible?” And that’s certainly what Putin is saying. I do think there is a tragedy there – that in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War we failed to demilitarize and denuclearize the whole of Europe and to create a pan-European security system that included Russia. That was a terrible mistake, but given the nature of Putin’s regime, I don’t think you can blame NATO. NATO expansion is the pretext for – not the cause of – Putin’s actions.  Indeed now, neighbouring states like the Baltic states or Poland feel a lot safer being inside NATO.

You raised the point that the idea of democracy has played an important role in this crisis. Are there things the West should be doing right now in light of this conflict to strengthen democracies?  

Absolutely – and I think it’s already happening. If you remember the Belarus crisis a few months ago, Russia’s aim was not only to undermine democracy, but to undermine the EU and to sow seeds of disunity. The European Union’s legitimacy depends on it being seen to uphold its values, and Putin was trying to undermine that. So, when Belarus sent refugees to the EU’s border and the EU turned them back, that exposed the EU’s hypocrisy. It would have been so easy for the Europeans to call their bluff and accept them – it was only 150 000 refugees, which is tiny in relation to the whole of Europe. The whole refugee crisis has been manufactured by the authoritarian right. In 2015, had we accepted all the Syrian refugees, I hardly think people would have noticed. We’re doing research at the LSE on the integration of Syrians in Germany, and it has gone very well. The EU needs more people.. I think the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees is dramatically turning things around – it shows that Europeans are much nicer than politicians give them credit for, and it will make it more difficult for the authoritarian right to play on refugee fears in future. After being so welcoming to these refugees, one would hope that Europeans would  treat other refugees the same way – no matter where they’re from. A shift in attitudes to refugees would strengthen the European Union’s claim to be based on values, thus weakening the authoritarian right while strengthening democracy. This war is all about democracy versus the criminalized kleptocracy which has become part of the authoritarian right in a range of countries – including Russia, Brazil, India, the United States, and even in Britain.  

We’re now seeing foreign nationals begin to enter this conflict – on one side, Russia is bringing in Syrian soldiers, and on the other side, Ukraine is welcoming foreign fighters into an international legion. Is that an interesting dimension of this conflict from your perspective?  

Yes, and a very alarming dimension. On the Russian side, bringing in mercenaries means bringing in armed groups who are only there for the salaries – that is likely to contribute to further disintegration in my view.  

Meanwhile, with respect to Ukraine’s international legion, it’s worrying because NATO and the West have drawn a line about sending people. They’re providing weapons, not people, because they are afraid of escalation to nuclear war. I understand why people with military experience might want to help with Ukraine’s defence, but will those individual volunteers count or be perceived as Western fighters?  

We’re having this interview during a week when NATO, G7 and European Union leaders have gathered in Brussels for a series of emergency meetings about this crisis. Is there any issue which you feel should be getting more attention or that those leaders should be thinking more about? 

They’re talking about the right things. They are talking about providing anti-aircraft and anti-tank equipment to Ukraine. And they’re talking about imposing sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports – which is something we need to do for climate change, as well as for democracy;  dependence on oil and gas revenue has produced dictatorships in Russia and the Middle East and elsewhere, it is the so=called ‘resource curse’..  

However, I think one area that hasn’t been thought through enough yet is the situation inside Russia. If we think of Russia as a criminalized kleptocracy, then where are the openings for changing that system? We have seen widespread opposition in Russia – there have been demonstrations, and the estimated 1500 Russian soldiers who have been killed will have had families left behind in Russia. The best hope for ending this war is pressure from soldiers who don’t want to fight combined with domestic opposition. So, we need to think about the ways in which we can make that happen. Putin has introduced extremely repressive measures in the wake of that opposition – you can be imprisoned for 15 years for protesting in a demonstration. We need to help the Russian opposition by encouraging dialogue with and support for Russian civil society and thinking about offering asylum to Russian soldiers. I also think that a lot of towns that are twinned with Russian towns have decided to end their twinning – but I think they should be in touch with the opposition inside and could be leveraging their twinning to create more space for protesters.  

What about our larger system of global governance, and Russia’s place within these global systems as present? Do these institutions need to change in the face of this crisis?  

Completely. We need a bigger role for the UN, and for the multilateral system. The Security Council also needs to be reformed – and has needed reform for many years. It needs to be more representative, and it needs to be more accountable to citizens. We can get around the Security Council with Uniting for Peace resolutions in the General Assembly, but even so, this is all about political will. There needs to be a much greater role for the UN, and for other international organizations including the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  

More broadly, what do you anticipate the implications of this conflict will be for our understanding of a new era of security politics? 

Well, one question right now is ‘is the war going to end?’. It’s quite possible that Putin will dig in, and this conflict could become more like the sort of intractable conflict we’ve seen in places like Syria and Libya. And one might see similar things happen in Russia as a consequence of sanctions. The sanctions are very comprehensive and widespread, so they will affect ordinary people more than the regime. One outcome could be that the regime uses the sanctions as an argument to stay in power, while people becoming poor turn to crime and violence. It’s quite frightening to think that we may end up with that situation on our borders, and it is difficult to think of what could be done in that situation to strengthen the defensive mechanisms Europe would need.  

Both Germany and the European Union have talked about increasing defence spending and forming a defence union and I think it’s important that that the conversation isn’t about the creation of a new European superpower. It should be focused on defensive measures, and it should emphasize human rights and crisis management, helping to address protracted conflicts in Syria and Libya, etc. All those things are already in EU policy, but until now there hasn’t been the political will to take serious action. I hope that this crisis becomes an opportunity to take things seriously. In the long term, what I would like to see is a return to the idea of a European security system based on the Helsinki principles. The Helsinki agreement was signed in 1975 and involved three pillars: the first is territorial status quo; the second is second economic and social cooperation – and I do think there are some global challenges such as climate change and pandemics on which we will have to cooperate with Russia and China in the future; and the third is human rights. And we haven’t heard enough about human rights recently – we didn’t hear enough about it in Crimea and Georgia, and it’s important that we think about all the legal aspects of this war – including the war crimes that have been committed.  

What does action on that look like in practice? 

We need to put human rights issues at the forefront of discourses. We need to draw attention to the human rights violations that are happening, and then to calibrate responses accordingly. The Council of Europe, which is built around the European Human Rights Convention, has suspended Russia for example, and Russia’s reaction was to immediately say that they want to bring back the death penalty. So, I wonder whether suspension was the right strategy, and what the Council of Europe can do to put pressure on Russia on human rights issues.  

What about the United Kingdom specifically? What should the UK be doing or thinking about right now? 

The UK should be working with the EU. I think Brexit was a terrible mistake, though in some ways the EU is better off without us because it was easier to agree to a recovery plan and climate change without us. However, the UK always has made a very important contribution to Europe in security and defence policy, and I would hope that Britain is still cooperating with Europe, and with the EU specifically, possibly within the framework of NATO.  

Moreover, the current refugee policy in the UK is embarrassing – the obstacles that the government is imposing for Ukrainian refugees is shameful. Britain needs to change and be more in line with the European Union in welcoming refugees.  

Another area which is hugely important is that Britain is a centre for the money laundering that keeps these crony capitalists going. We seem to finally be doing something about the assets of Russian oligarchs, which of course the Conservative government was historically unwilling to do because they have Russian donors. I’m hoping that once we start cleaning up our act on money laundering, it will also affect crony capitalists in other parts of the world. That will be important in contributing to democracies around the world. And the UK should be able to go beyond confiscating assets – which is quite difficult to do because it seems easy for these rich people to put their money in trusts or hide it. What’s important is criminal investigation, and at the moment the UK doesn’t have that capacity. We need to build up that criminal investigative capacity and to treat corruption and corrupt money acquisition much more seriously.  

What would be your key messages to those thinking about, discussing, and responding to this crisis right now? 

This war is much more like a classic ‘old’ war. It’s a deep-rooted contest between two sides, and it’s showing us the difficulty of using military force for what the strategist Thomas Schelling described as ‘compellance’ – making people do what you want them to do. It’s very destructive and has disintegrative implications but it is very difficult for either side to win. We should be thinking about how to prevent this war from either escalating to a nuclear level or disintegrating into the type of long, intractable conflict we’ve seen elsewhere. Partially, that has to do with money – armed groups make money from violence, they start looting and smuggling. So, we need to think about money and military discipline, to make sure that doesn’t happen.  

But it is also about  keeping ethnicity out of this conflict. What’s impressive about Ukraine at the moment is that it has a civic identity which brings together ethnic Ukrainians, ethnic Russians,  Jewish people., and other ethnicities; and as everywhere, most people are mixed. But with the hatred of Russia that has been generated by the invasion, there is always a risk the conflict could become ethnicized, and that Ukrainians could start turning against Russians. Preventing that from happening is important.  

Ultimately, we need to think about how to prevent this conflict from becoming an intractable conflict, a ‘forever war’, or what I would call a ‘new war’. We also need to engage with Russian civil society, to demonstrate that we’re against the regime, not Russia. That means supporting efforts inside Russia or inside the military to try to restrain this war.  

Professor Mary Kaldor is the Director of the Conflict Research Programme at LSE IDEAS. Her work addresses human security and the political economy of security. She is an expert on contemporary conflicts and is best known for her work on ‘New Wars’. She has written extensively about the changing nature of warfare after the end of the Cold War. You can learn more about her work here. Professor Kaldor has previously been featured on the PaCCS website for her ESRC, DSTL and AHRC funded work on the Strategic Governance of Science and Technology Pathways to Security