"Putin's attack on Ukraine is an attack on Europe"

Prof. Dr Susanne Frank and Prof. Dr Silvia von Steinsdorff talk in an interview about the reasons for Russia's attack on Ukraine, the effectiveness of sanctions and the role of the churches, among other things.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Frank is the head of the Department of East Slavic Literatures and Cultures at Humboldt University. Prof. Dr. Silvia von Steinsdorff has held the Chair of Comparative Democracy and the Political Systems of Eastern Europe at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin since February 2009.

Why did Russia attack Ukraine? What is Putin's intention behind this attack?

Prof. Dr. Silvia von Steinsdorff: No rational justification can be found for the massive assault on the whole of Ukraine. Apparently, Putin suddenly abandoned his longer-term strategy and made the rationally incomprehensible decision to dramatically escalate the situation. If reasons can be given for this at all, then the open war can at best be interpreted as a reaction to the fact that the long-term strategy of calculated conflict, which has destabilised eastern Ukraine for years, and the threats against the EU and Nato have not brought the expected results.
In the long term, Putin is pursuing two goals: a foreign policy goal and a domestic policy goal. Geopolitically, he is concerned with strengthening Russia's role in the world and reviving a Russian imperial superpower. The perceived injuries and feelings of loss after the dissolution of the Soviet Union play an important role here, which also have to do with the behaviour of Western countries towards Russia. But of course this in no way justifies the current bellicose aggression. And in this long-term strategy of Putin's to make Russia a world power again, Ukraine plays a central role.

But Ukraine is also perceived as a threat domestically. Since the pro-European mass protests on the Maidan in 2013/14, there have been fears that the increasingly dissatisfied Russian population could take an example from here. The same applies to the country's orientation towards the West, towards Europe, and to the liberalisation of society. Russian citizens have many contacts in Ukraine. No matter how effective the propaganda, this cannot be completely ignored. In this respect, there are definitely also domestic political reasons that have led to the Ukraine's independent, pro-European policy being, so to speak, put a stop to.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Frank: Putin has long had the vision of re-establishing the pre-revolutionary Russian empire. From his point of view, the Soviet Union was also already a mistake. And that is because the republics were promised independence or extensive autonomy, at least on paper. Putin's vision has a lot to do with his faith and his identification with the Orthodox Church, which can also be seen in many other foreign policy statements and fraternisations, for example with Serbia. From this perspective, Kiev is for him the holy cradle of Russia and therefore an integral part of Russia and belongs, in a sense, to the core of what he understands as Russia.

Prof. Dr. Frank, you mentioned Putin's faith. What role do the churches play in this war of aggression?

Frank: The relations between Ukraine and Russia are very complicated. Ukraine is a very big country. There are big differences between the West and the East, which is also culturally very close to Russia. There are also big differences as far as the church is concerned.

The church landscape in majority Orthodox Ukraine is quite complex. In 2018, the Patriarch of Constantinople granted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine the status of an autocephalous church, i.e. not subject to the Patriarchate. In addition, there is traditionally the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, to which the Cave Monastery, the most important and largest monastery in the historical core of Kiev, also belongs, and finally the so-called Uniate Church, which recognises the Pope. Also because of the ecclesiastical situation, there are many Ukrainians who feel connected to Russia. In the current situation, however, this does not automatically mean agreement with Putin's policies. The Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Onufrij, recently vehemently condemned Putin's war of aggression and thus resolutely distanced himself from the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who, in contrast, provides Putin with the religious justification for this war.

Why is Ukraine so important for Russia?

Von Steinsdorff: On the one hand, Ukraine is the bridge to the West. And for another, Ukraine is the cradle of Russian identity. There is a thousand-year-old cultural and political bond between these two countries. Ukraine is important for Russia from a strategic, geopolitical, cultural and historical point of view.

Frank: Simply put, Ukraine has an inestimably high symbolic status from Russia's point of view. Putin is certainly also concerned with expansion or power vis-à-vis NATO, but this symbolic role of Ukraine is very central.

What impact will the attack have on culture?

Frank: Putin's attack on Ukraine is an attack on Europe. From his "Eurasianist" geopolitical perspective, Europe appears as part of a "Western", Atlantic alliance. "Western" for Putin means: homosexual aka morally depraved, politically unacceptable because liberal and above all "enemy" and "threat to Russia". "Russophobia" is Putin's fighting term with which he paints the West as thoroughly hostile to Russia in the eyes of Russian citizens. In fact, Putin's attack will have the effect that there will now be a renewed tendency in the West to condemn Russia as barbaric altogether. Not only will visas no longer be granted, but Russian literature will be translated even less than in recent years and there will be prejudice against all people with Russian passports. Especially for Russians themselves, this war is already having disastrous consequences. But this confrontation is intended by Putin because, as I said, from Putin's point of view, the European spirit is rotten and Russia has to be preserved, so to speak, from this "plague of Europe".

However, it is very important to see that Putin is not Russia! So far, protests against military aggression have been held in more than 60 Russian cities, and thousands have been arrested in the capitals because of it. Especially for arrested students, these protests have serious consequences; they then lose their place at university. Numerous important intellectuals - though mainly those who are currently abroad - immediately spoke out against this inconceivably terrible breach of international law with more than clear speeches. They did not make the comparison with the aggression of the Nazis in 1941, which is really obvious at this point, and pointed out that this step will inevitably result in an indictment by the International Court of Justice and a conviction along the lines of the Nuremberg Trials.

What success do the sanctions imposed on Russia promise?

Von Steinsdorff: There is a lot of evidence in research that economic sanctions rarely really produce the intended success. After the annexation of Crimea, there were Western sanctions - even if they were relatively mild compared to today. The sanctions have hit different industries in Russia to varying degrees, but overall they have contributed to a sharp decline in Russian economic growth.

In part, the dwindling support for Putin at home is certainly due to the fact that Putin's "social contract" - an ever-better life for Russians in return for political support for his course - is working less and less well as a result of these sanctions. On the other hand, the Russian economy has certainly benefited from the sanctions, especially in the area of consumer goods production, because the competition from Western imports has disappeared. Something new are the sanctions, which are now intended to personally affect individual representatives of the system. These are not only the classic oligarchs, most of whom no longer live in Russia anyway. It is above all about the ruling elite of the "Putin system", whose children can no longer attend Western schools and who can no longer take a holiday in the South of France. This certainly has a symbolic effect, but it will not lead to an end to the war.

Will Russia now turn more towards China?

Von Steinsdorff: The fact that an alliance between Russia and China is emerging has been observed for some time. China benefits from this alliance. At the same time, however, there are definitely conflicts of interest between Russia and China. There will probably not be an unbreakable friendship between these two countries, but rather an alliance of convenience that will benefit China more than Russia.

Frank: Of course, it is extremely important for Russia to be friends with China or to cooperate with it. And that is what they are doing economically. However, I don't think China will join Putin, but I think they will take advantage of this situation for themselves.