Visegrad Insight sat down with acclaimed journalist Anne Appelbaum to discuss the future of Crimea and democracy in the CEE region.
The interview with Anne Applebaum below is abridged from the recent Visegrad Insight Podcast. Listen to the whole discussion here:
Agnieszka Homańska: It’s been already one year since the full scale Russian invasion – so what would be the first takeaway after the year of this complete change in European dynamics?
Anne Applebaum: I suppose I should start by saying that all of the US financial and military aid given to Ukraine so far is much greater than what anybody expected at the beginning of the war, including the Ukrainians and, of course, the Russians, and maybe even including the Biden administration.
This happened because Ukrainians earned their support from America by showing that they can use the weapons well, that they’re really determined to fight, and of course, thanks to their successes, first expelling the Russians from Kyiv and later liberating some of their occupied territories.
I am worried about the longer term. Quite a lot depends on how much the Ukrainians are able to do this summer. In the US, the problem isn’t so much public or popular commitment to Ukraine, which I think is actually still pretty high – polling shows a broad level of American support for Ukraine. The problem is the coming US presidential election. The Republican candidate will probably be Donald Trump (at least he is leading right now), and he has said he doesn’t favour Ukraine, wants the war to end soon and so on.
I think there’s a lot of pressure on the Ukrainians to win or to at least take back a lot of their territory over the next six months. And if that doesn’t happen, then there could be pressure on Ukraine to concede next year.
Therefore, would you say that making a significant breakthrough now is important? And by that, I’m referring to the Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea.
I do think it’s important. I just published something that argues that the Ukrainians should try to retake Crimea and that we should endorse that project. The Biden administration hasn’t said anything about Crimea at all. I think the retaking of Crimea could really be the blow or the victory that could convince Russians that this war was a mistake.
In order to end the war – and by “end”, I do not mean suspend it for six months or suspend it even for five or eight years like last time, but end it forever – there has to be a political change in Russia. I don’t necessarily mean regime change. I think there will have to be a decision by the Russian elite that the war was a mistake and that Ukraine has a right to exist.
There will have to be a shift of the kind that happened in France, for example, in the early 1960s, when they decided that they didn’t want to fight anymore in Algeria. It’s possible that Crimea could be that defeat.
I should also say that Crimea today is essentially an aircraft carrier stuck to the bottom of Ukraine; they’ve completely militarised Crimea. It’s where prisons holding Ukrainian POWs are kept, and it’s where they prepared for the invasion of southern Ukraine.
It’s very important for Ukrainian long-term security that, at the very least, it’d be neutralised, but it would be much better if it were Ukrainian territory.
Would you say that retaking Crimea increases the risk of a nuclear response from Russia?
It certainly increases all kinds of risks. But the way to push back against a nuclear response from Russia is what we’ve been doing so far, namely, deterring Russia, explaining both on the record and in private that there will be – as Jake Sullivan, the American national security adviser, said – a “catastrophic response”. There is some pressure on Russia not to use nuclear weapons coming from other countries as well, most notably from China. Whether or not Ukraine takes Crimea isn’t the thing that determines whether or not Russia uses nuclear weapons.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated in Washington that if Ukraine fails, China may likely attack Taiwan. How do you perceive it? And how seriously should we actually treat China’s support for Russia?
Those are two different questions. I don’t think there’s an automatic relationship between what happens in Ukraine and what happens in Taiwan. There’s clearly a kind of metaphoric relationship in that the Chinese are watching the Western involvement in Ukraine, they will now take that into calculation when they think about Taiwan.
It’s actually been my guess for a long time that the Chinese don’t want to invade Taiwan militarily. They’re still hoping to kind of get Taiwan politically. I was in Taiwan in October, and it’s pretty clear to me that a kind of Chinese information war, political war on Taiwan is already well underway with propaganda, disinformation and attempts to influence Chinese and Taiwanese politicians as well as Taiwanese business people. They do military exercises too, as a kind of scare tactic. All of that is part of a coherent package to pressure Taiwan.
Separately, China’s role in the war is quite important because they’re one of the powers that is, in effect, allowing Russia to keep fighting because they’re buying Russian oil and gas, they’re enabling the export of electronics and so on to Russia, which the Russians wouldn’t be able to get in other ways. They’re keeping Russia going.
On the other hand, as far as we know, they are not selling Russian arms. They could, but they clearly decided not to, which is their balanced response to the conflict.
China could change its mind, and it would have a big impact on the war. Either they would start giving arms to Russia, or they would put more pressure on Russia to stop the war, which I believe they could do if they wanted to. I’m not sure even why they don’t because I think it would be quite good for China geopolitically to play that kind of role.
Let us go back to the Central and Eastern Europe region. There are discussions on how to rebuild Ukraine, yet rebuilding the country involves rebuilding the nation. What do you think will be the impact of the war on the young generation of Ukraine? How will their war trauma impact the reconstruction of the country?
The last time I was in Ukraine, I met with the First Lady, President Zelenskyi’s wife, who is very worried about a potential wave of violent behaviour among people who are now children and teenagers.
Clearly, Ukraine will have some people who are traumatised, and some people who got used to the idea of violence. There is a danger that politics will be violent in Ukraine after the war too. A lot depends on how the war ends. If it ends in a way that’s unsatisfactory, I think people will be angry, and they will be angry for a long time.
On the other hand, you also have a lot of very young people who have taken on enormous responsibility and have achieved things that are not usual, even for younger people to achieve in more “normal” countries because they don’t have those kinds of opportunities, whether by playing an important role in the military or by organising this incredible civic movement to help the army and the society.
Travelling last summer, I met an amazing group of very young people in Odesa, teenagers, some of them, and they were involved in helping people in occupied territories escape; they were involved in helping people in recently liberated territories rebuild, get food and medicine. And to have had that kind of experience as a young person can strengthen you. And those people are the future leaders of Ukraine.
How do you see the evolution of Polish – Ukrainian relations? Will Polish support help Ukraine join the EU?
Every single Polish government, since Ukrainian independence in 1991, has been extremely pro-Ukrainian. The one exception is the PiS government from between 2015 and 2022. They weren’t especially close to Ukraine, but every previous government was.
President Kwasniewski was the first European leader to recognise independent Ukraine. The government of Donald Tusk (In which my husband was then the foreign minister) created the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement, which opened up the trade relationship with Ukraine, and eventually led to Majdan.
The idea that Ukraine should be European has been pretty much accepted by all political sides. I think it will go on being important for whoever is in the Polish government.
What about the corruption, the Ukrainian reforms were starting before the war, would it be different now? And how would that influence the future shape of Ukraine?
There are some very corrupt countries in Europe that have also made it into the EU and NATO.
Turkey is a very corrupt country. Italy is a very corrupt country. The influence of corruption and kleptocratic money is very large in Britain and also in the United States. And so I’m not sure why Ukraine is different in that sense.
The problem in Ukraine was not merely corruption, it’s more the weakness of state institutions. Ukrainians are very, very good at creating grassroots movements – like their army, it feels almost like a partisan army; it’s organised from the ground up. But, they haven’t been good at creating state institutions and as a result, Ukrainian presidents have always been tempted to capture them and shape them for their personal political needs. There is, of course, a threat that after the war, President Zelenskyy, or anybody else, would want to do that again.
The good news is that it usually fails. Would-be autocrats try to re-centralise Ukraine and direct money in a particular way, and sooner or later, their plan fails. Ukraine is not a country like Russia that is good at creating a powerful autocracy. However, (corruption) must still be taken into consideration during reconstruction because notoriously big development projects and reconstruction projects become corrupt when a lot of money flows into a very poor place. But as I said, my main fear isn’t corruption, it’s the weakness of the state.
Let’s switch to Poland. Nearly 75 per cent of Poles consider democracy to be the best out of all the systems, but roughly half say that they are unsatisfied with how it functions. Around 20 per cent believe that the state of democracy is disastrous. And moreover, as many as 30 per cent of the young generation do not know what Poland they would like to live in. Now, going back to your 20s, so the time when you published your first book, what was the meaning of democracy for you back then?
I grew up in a democracy, and I took it for granted because you take for granted whatever system you grew up in. But I think for Poles, at that time, (democracy) seemed very much like an ideal; it was something that they wanted to attain. Democracy, prosperity, cultural freedom, and European integration were all seen as things that were linked: they were part of a single package. When people said they wanted one of them (e.g., democracy), what was often meant was they wanted the whole thing.
One of the big mistakes that Poland made over the last 30 years was not to educate people more about what democracy is and how it works. What’s the significance of having an independent judiciary? What’s the point of having checks and balances? How does democracy create and encourage compromise so that extremists don’t dictate what happens? I don’t think any of that was taught very well, in Poland, as a result of which this kind of vague idea that we should be a democracy wasn’t really built into the educational system and was, again, taken for granted that everybody understood what it was and that everybody wanted it.
Do you think then that the concept of democracy has changed in the region?
I don’t know that the concept of democracy has changed. I suppose there’s more cynicism about democratic politics and democratic leaders since there was an idealistic belief that everything would be perfect.
There has been a lot of corruption in the region, and people, of course, associate that with whatever the political system is operating. Although most of the region – and especially in Poland – has enjoyed extraordinary levels of economic growth in all social classes over the last 30 years, people feel they deserve more or expected more, and there are those who didn’t like the growing gap between wealthier and less wealthy people in this society, which is also beginning to be associated with democracy, with what they thought was economic unfairness.
There is no promise that democracy will make you rich; it’s never been designed to do that. It has often gone along with wealth because democracy implies a more open society, and it applies freer trade and more education and implies a degree of dynamism There’s been a mismatch between expectations and reality.
This discussion is an abridged version from our podcast, found here; segments have been edited and shortened for brevity and cohesion.
Source : Visegrad/Insight