Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Borodianka
Vladimir Putin (left), Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right), and bombed out Ukrainian town Borodianka. Photo credit: a href="" target="_blank">President of Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0), President Of Ukraine / Flickr, and © Paul Grover/i-Images via ZUMA Press.

Sam Ramani’s must-read Twitter feed on Ukraine is just a teaser for this deep and insightful look at Putin and Russia.

Has any war in history gotten such overwhelmingly granular coverage as the war in Ukraine? We seem to know about every missile, every aircraft part, every military and civilian death in staggering detail. But to really understand what’s happening, we need to step back and consider the deeper geopolitical causes and implications.

That’s our focus in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast with Samuel Ramani — an expert on Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Syria. Ramani received his doctorate in international relations from Oxford, where he is now a tutor in the department of political science, and is a member of the Royal United Services Institute in London. He has spent much time in Russia and Ukraine.

Ramini reminds us that for Russia, the Cold War never ended. He details the nationalism awash in all parts of Russian society, and how that sentiment underpins Putin’s broad support across the country.

He examines Russia’s position vis-à-vis China, which has the powerful economy and the respect of world leaders that Putin can only dream of. And he lays bare the twisted role of the Russian Orthodox Church — currently headed by a former KGB agent.

As for the future, Ramani explains why he sees no possible solution right now at the bargaining table — not until the tragic situation on the ground plays out further, with more death and destruction. 

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. Coverage, analysis, and understanding of war is as old as war itself. Today though, it’s as if all of the journalistic media and technological forces that have come together in the 21st century are uniquely laser-focused on the war in Ukraine. Perhaps never in history have we had such granular coverage and dissemination of information and disinformation in a war. Certainly not in our 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Vietnam, or any other war. But as T.S. Eliot said, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information and where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?”

Amidst the minute-by-minute coverage of every missile, every aircraft part, every military and civilian death, we need to step back and take a broader view of where all of this might lead us. Few understand this better than my guest, Sam Ramani. Sam just completed his PhD at Oxford, is a tutor in the political science department at Oxford, and has two books coming out. One about the Russia-Ukraine War and the other dealing with Russia’s foreign policy in Africa. His Twitter feed is one of the three or four must follows if you care about what’s happening in Ukraine.

And it is my pleasure to welcome Sam Ramani here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Sam, thanks so much for joining us.

Sam Ramani: Thank you so much, Jeff. It’s really great to be here.

Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you. I want to start with a broader issue in all of this, and we seem to be viewing all of this, at least from the American perspective, not just as a battle about Ukraine, but almost as Cold War 2.0. This sense that if we can help Ukraine win this war, that somehow it will destabilize Russia, destabilize Putin. That somehow we’ll wind up with Gorbachev 2.0 and that the world will change dramatically in a geopolitical sense. Talk about that first.

Sam: Well, I think that that is a bit of a very, very myopic way of viewing it. I think that, first of all, if Vladimir Putin does lose the war in Ukraine, we have to first of all define what defeat would look like. I think a decisive defeat would be Ukraine recapturing not only all the territory that Russia has occupied in this current war but also parts of Donbas, Donetsk, and the Luhansk People’s Republics as Russia call it, that Russia had annexed in 2014 and 2015. In that scenario, Russia would probably face a lot of internal turmoil, a lot of questioning about what went wrong.

There’ll be a lot of stab-in-the-back myths, there’ll be a lot of backstabbing and recriminations about how the war failed. And I think that Vladimir Putin will be able to survive that.

He’ll be able to claim that, “Oh, Russia lost territory in the Ukraine because they were not just facing a war with Ukraine, they’re facing an entire war against the West.” And so with NATO, with the United States, with the European Union, everybody ganging up on Russia, and Russia had to cede ground now but is now preparing to regroup and recover. And basically, what will happen is that the heads will start rolling inside the defense establishment like Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov.

So what I fear in that scenario is not that Vladimir Putin is going to get overthrown, but in fact, Putin is going to get even more militant, more rambunctious, and the advisors and the people around him will encourage him to strike back even harder next time. So I think we should be not very optimistic about, oh, yay, Ukraine being victorious leading to the end of Putin and the end of Putinism.

Jeff: And, in fact, what we have to keep in mind, which you’ve talked about and written about, is the reality, one, of the popularity of Putin. And two, the innate sense of nationalism, the strength of that nationalism that exists in Russia even among liberals in Russia.

Sam: Definitely, and I think that there’s nationalism that really is very pervasive across Russian society. So, obviously, there are some red lines for how far this nationalism would go. Before the war, polls suggested that only 36 percent of Russians really support a long-term occupation of Ukraine. So that’s why Russia framed it a Special Military Operation, as it calls it. Not as a war of occupation, but a war against both Western influence inside the Ukraine, as well as this phantom threat of denazification of the Ukraine. But other conspiracy theories that Russia has been providing have mainstream public appeal inside the Russian populace.

One of which is that NATO is launching a war of aggression against Russia and Ukraine is just a proxy theater in that war. And the endgame is to dismember Russia and to steal its resources. That’s something that’s actually been consistently supported by more than two-thirds of the Russian population in public opinion surveys dating back to the late 1990s. And now there is this notion that the Ukrainians and Russians are one people, so any kind of display of Ukrainian nationalism or Ukrainian pro-Western orientation is almost a perversion of history.

It’s a perversion of reality, and it’s something that should be squashed so the historical course can be corrected and Russia and Ukraine can share a common future and a common destiny. That’s something that polls before the war showed 64 percent of Russians believing. Now, there’s opinion data that shows consistently around 80 percent approval for Putin. Obviously, we have to be skeptical of that given the degree of censorship and given the degree of suppression of alternative media and information sources, and the fear of recrimination.

But it’s clear that Vladimir Putin’s war aims, if not how the war has preceded itself, are accepted by the overwhelming majority of Russians, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. I think that Putin’s talk about a total economic warfare from the West over sanctions is probably going to make those sentiments even more pronounced and not less.

Jeff: And to that extent, have sanctions, in some respects, particularly the strength of the sanctions, strengthened Putin’s hand?

Sam: Well, sanctions have definitely caused a rally-around-the-flag effect around Putin, at least temporarily. And given the fact that the foundations of the war have been so popular, as I stated, I think that rally could last quite a long time. It may not reach the kind of consistent heights that we saw after the annexation of Crimea where Vladimir Putin’s approval rating for more than two years was regularly in excess of 85 to 90 percent, in part because the war in Ukraine has not gone to plan, right?

It was supposed to have been won in a week. RIA Novosti famously published an op-ed two days after the war started, celebrating the return of Ukraine to Russia and the restoration of their historical destiny. So, given those expectations of such a rapid and overwhelming success, it may not be the kind of sustained overwhelming patriotic rally we saw after Crimea, but this fear of economic warfare from the West, the popularity of Putin’s narratives, definitely mean that I think, in the short run at least, he’s going to have a political windfall from it.

Jeff: If Russians had free information, how different would things be?

Sam: That’s a question that is really hotly debated inside Russia. On the one hand, you have the views of liberals like Alexei Navalny who would say that free information and the truth is a more powerful weapon against the Putin regime than javelins. That’s a quote against him that he made. But Navalny’s perspective is not universally shared. There’s a lot of people who believe that Russian state media is being accepted by the Russian people because they’ve been conditioned to think this way over the course of decades.

For example, the narratives that Russia is talking about with regards to this threat of Western influence equaling fascism is not new. Those narratives date back to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring, which are also framed in the Soviet Union as fascist uprisings because they were showing dissent from Soviet monopolistic control. In fact, the Soviet Union advised some of its own soldiers, in reentering Hungary, that they were actually going to Germany to fight Nazis. So this notion of denazification, this notion of combating Western fascism is something that is very deeply ingrained in Russian Society.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the Ukrainian government took power as a result of the popular revolution in Euromaidan in 2014. And popular revolutions have been viewed as conduits for the spread of liberal values that are alien to Russia. So, everything from homosexuality to anything that goes against the diktats of the Russian Orthodox Church. As well as, basically, a staging ground for uncontrolled unrest and destabilization of Russia. So, the narrative of regime change in Ukraine, overthrowing Zelensky, and reversing the Maidan revolution, is also very popular.

As are some of the conspiracies that I’ve told you about with regards to the West, that persisted since the late 1990s. Even when information was much more free in the late 1990s, early 2000s, underlying suspicions of American intentions towards Russia and American encroachment on the Russian sphere of influence were already there. So if my argument is true, I think that some more information flows and more accurate information entering Russia could manipulate public opinion away from supporting Putin blindly on some of the worst excesses, like the Bucha massacre and some of the atrocities that we’ve seen.

But I don’t think it would fundamentally shape the course of support for Putin, which is basically, I think the Russians are united around this war against Ukraine and the war against the West.

Jeff: How central has the Russian Orthodox Church been in this?

Sam: So, the Russian Orthodox church has devolved into something of a political tool. In many ways, it’s largely functioning like the Serbian Orthodox Church did during the 1990s when it endorsed Slobodan Milošević’s wars of aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the whitewashing of genocidal crimes in Srebrenica and elsewhere. So, the Russian Orthodox Church played this exact same kind of role in this conflict. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, is rumored to be a former KGB agent. He’s established a close friendship with Vladimir Putin which dates back to 2001 – there’s even a photo of Putin and Patriarch Kirill chumming together from around that time. 

As soon as he became the patriarch in 2009, he really started cheering and backing every single diktat of Vladimir Putin’s political agenda, from supporting anti-Western regimes, fighting to be the head of the Orthodox Church, honoring devout atheists like Fidel Castro in Cuba, but that’s exactly what he did. He also supported the first war in Ukraine, and he has rallied support inside the Russian public for this notion of de-Ukrainianization.

Effectively, that the Ukrainian identity is artificial, and that Ukraine has been almost separated from Russia by outside Western forces ever since the Middle Ages. Ever since [unintelligible 00:10:39] integrated into a new Russian state, the West has been trying to dismember the Russian Empire. So, he’s been promoting a lot of historical myths and using his pulpit as the head of a church to provide some kind of moral blessing and moral judgment for Russian militarism, and by extension, Putin’s war. So, I think he’s been a powerful agent to the Russian state, and a powerful agent of rallying the Russian public around Vladimir Putin for over a decade, and especially in this war.

Jeff: So, much of this stems from the Russian insecurity, the loss of empire, the loss of world respect. Talk about that.

Sam: So, Russia has viewed this war as a sign that it is trying to respond to decades of disrespect of itself as a country. And we should look at that very closely too when we look at Russian official statements. So we see figures like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, or the Head of the National Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, talk about how one of the defining missions of this war is to end the unipolar order and establish a more equitable multipolar order that gives non-Western powers respect. We should heed that because I think that that is an important element of how Russia sees this war.

Russia views itself, even if it denies it vehemently now by saying the Cold War never ended, as a defeated power in the 1990s. And it felt like it was being treated as such – much like Germany was treated after the First World War. There’s a popular phrase in Russia that Russia suffered from Versailles syndrome in the 1990s. And that that is something that’s a part of their identity. They view NATO expansion to their sphere of influence as stripping them of their traditional territorial extensions. They view the West as capitalizing and predating on Russia through political interference in support of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s when they were at their weakest.

Then disregarding their contrary opinions over Kosovo, and the Iraq War, and then supporting popular revolutions closer to Russia’s borders. The popular revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004 in particular, were widely castigated. And then disrespecting Russia again in Libya, and then supporting protests inside Russia in 2011-12, and then a coup in Ukraine in 2014. And now, it’s just gotten intolerable how much disrespect from the West has happened, and Russia needs to strike back, and Russia needs to retaliate.

Of course, these narratives are detached from reality for the most part, and they represent a gross misrepresentation of 21st-century history, but the Russian elite has this narrative and the story repeated so many times, it’s almost ingrained. This notion of the West is untrustworthy, the West is plotting against Russia, and trying to subordinate and trying to weaken it, and the only way to fight back is through military power, is something that I think is very, very much accepted inside the Kremlin. And when they talk about defeating the unipolar order through military force, we should take that seriously because it’s important to understanding the Putin regime’s intentions.

Jeff: NATO expansion led directly into this?

Sam: There are several schools of thought on that. I would say that NATO expansion provides a great pretext for Russia to claim that the West is encircling it. And it provides a convenient threat of constant Western coercion and encirclement that they can rally their people around. The actual truth is a little bit murkier. When the Russians talk about how the United States gave concrete assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not extend one inch to the East, there’s a mixed historical record on that. And the actual more recent historical interpretation was just that that guarantee was not really as ironclad as the Russians make it out to be.

And, of course, there’s the argument that the Russian state has fundamentally changed since the 1990s since the NATO-Russia delineations were agreed [to] in 1997. It’s become more aggressive, it’s become more authoritarian, and therefore, there needs to be new and appropriate responses coming from the West. Also, you have cases where Russia, in the early 2000s, talked about even joining NATO if it was given special membership privileges. And also the Russians, apparently, at various points in time in 2002, and even after that, being okay with Ukraine joining NATO under certain conditions.

So, the Russians were okay with NATO expansion intermittently, and sometimes against it over the course of a decade and a half, and suddenly, they began to view it as this existential security threat. Even in countries where NATO accession was highly remote, in Georgia, in Ukraine, the people only started accepting the idea of wanting to join NATO after Russia invaded. There was that declaration in Bucharest in 2008, but the people of those countries didn’t really support NATO membership until after Russia had launched those wars. So, Russia has launched wars against neutral countries.

Its wars have actually been the biggest catalyst of NATO expansion over the past decade, and their reading of 1990s NATO Russian history is also aimed at creating NATO expansion as a pretext for aggression, and it’s not really an accurate historical reading, in my view.

Jeff: There’s an interesting irony here, in that this war has given rise to a kind of nation-building in Ukraine that we could only have imagined doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sam: Well, yes. It certainly has created an immense amount of patriotic mobilization inside Ukraine, and Ukrainian nationalism. It’s important to keep in mind that before this war, the second most popular political party, which had seats in the Ukrainian Rada, was the opposition block. That’s the party that’s been tied to the fugitive lawmaker, Viktor Medvedchuk.

So, there was a pro-Russian, small minority that was very vocal inside Ukraine and Ukrainian politics. And now that pro-Russian base has been basically extinguished, Ukraine has decided that its identity and its future is firmly based in the short term of European Union membership, and in the long term, potentially, a future NATO membership. Though it might consider making a neutrality compromise with security guarantees if Russia were to withdraw in the territory that it’s occupied. But that’s a bit remote. But yes, this war has united Ukrainians around a pro-Western identity, a decidedly anti-Russian identity, and a strong patriotic and civic identity that I think will last for decades to come.

Jeff: Talking about Russia’s insecurity, you go back and you think about, during the Obama administration and his attempt to reset relationships with Russia, referring to Russia as a third rate, regional power, certainly, that was exactly the kind of thing that fed into this kind of insecurity that you’re talking about.

Sam: Exactly. Any kind of rhetoric that comes from the United States or the West that marginalized Russia as anything less than a great power, or even without saying the words, acting in that way, by disrespecting Russia by not consulting them, like they did in Kosovo, and they did in Libya, then the Russians feel that they had been slighted. They feel insecure, and that encourages, in some ways, even if it’s not intended from the US side, Russian aggression.

And we saw that in a very small example just this past couple of days. So, after the United States released a series of reports saying that Russia’s combat capabilities are only 75 percent of what they were in Ukraine, and talking about how the Russians are struggling with low morale and the war is failing, and these type of things, not even the highest reaches of the US leadership, but from Americans around. But what does Russia do? Russia tests the Sarmat system, the Satan II system, to show that it can put 10 nukes on a warhead, and it can threaten the entire world, and its military is strong.

So, it’s very, very hypersensitive to any kind of American disrespect of its military capabilities, its great power status, or its diplomatic influence, and it responds in kind. Sometimes with symbolic gestures like this, and sometimes with much more sinister military interventions, like we saw in Ukraine.

Jeff: Given this insecurity, how does Russia view the global respect and influence that China has?

Sam: So, Russia views China right now as a partner in arms, as a partner against the dismantling of the unipolar order, and China wants that too. The Chinese have been repeating and parroting a lot of the narratives about NATO expansion, threatening Russia. And they’ve talked about, in some ways, this campaign of pressure against Russia. There was an article in the People’s Daily today that, I think, was very, very emblematic of what the Chinese position looks like. 

First of all, they started by pressuring Russia out of its sphere of influence.Then they imposed economic pressure, then they imposed informational pressure. Criticizing Russia’s actions at every turn, blaming them without evidence for things like the Navalny poisoning, and all these things that they’ve been linked into doing. And now it got so intolerable, the Russians had to invade Ukraine. So, that narrative that the West is the real aggressor here, and that Russia’s hand was forced, is very much publicly accepted inside China. And China is doing the dirty work by covering up for some of Russia’s war crimes in the United Nations and also in its media outlets.

So, for now, the Russians are pretty confident that the rise of China is going to be an enabler of how it wants to change the world order. But in the long term, I think that the Russia-China relationship could suffer from some of the same kinds of mistrust and problems that we’ve seen in the Russia-West relationship. One, it is a huge power asymmetry that’s only going to be growing much more rapidly now that Russia’s economy is greatly weakened. Russia is now in a position where it’s not just a great power ally of China, but it’s dependent on China economically because if China withdraws economic support, it completely atrophies.

And that means it may have to follow China’s orders, take China’s diktats on some of its more problematic and aggressive policies that are threatening the Chinese investments and interests. And they also have to be more tolerant probably of China entering their own sphere of influence in Central Asia. And I don’t see the Russians being that happy about that in the long run. Also, the Russians might look back and say that while China stood with us in this war, they didn’t recognize our territorial holdings in Crimea, and Donetsk, and Luhansk.

They abstained from key UN resolutions instead of supporting us a lot of the time. They also instructed their state-owned companies to not invest more in Russia at this time of peril, and some have even pulled back, like Huawei. And they’ve also helped the West in terms of sanctions enforcement. They just, for example, created a freight carrier from Xi’an to Mannheim, which will get around a lot of the road transit sanctions that the Europeans have imposed on Russia. So, that’s helping the West. So, the Russians might look back at this and say China is not as good a friend as we thought they were, or they pretend they are and they’re disrespecting us in the same way as the West.

And then there could be tensions in the Sino-Russian relationship that resemble that between Russia and the West. That’s not immediate. That may be 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years away, but it’s definitely a big possibility going forward, that this Russian insecurity will permeate into their relationship with China.

Jeff: Russia becomes essentially a client state of China.

Sam: Well, Russia is, in some ways, now overwhelmingly dependent on China to an extent to which it’s never been before. And that’s something that’s uncomfortable because there’s a lot of mistrust of China still at the popular level in Russia. There’s still the memory of the fact that 1969, 1970, they were nearly at war between the Soviet Union and the Chinese. They’ve always preferred dealing with China from a position of strength like they did before the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War. And they’ve resented being seen as a secondary power towards China, being the junior partner in that relationship.

They’ve chafed at that, and, well, also, over the course of time, the Chinese have been very careful to play to Putin’s ego. Xi Jinping always acknowledges Vladimir Putin’s role as an equal between Russia and China. They always emphasize how jointly they’re fighting unilateralism from the West, productionism, and hegemonism. That’s the phrase that they often use. So now, if it’s looking like we’re not just a team, but China is the leading challenger against the West and Russia is following orders from China, that dynamic is not going to be very comfortable.

And add to the fact there’s a lot of borderline racist or even outright racist conspiracies inside the Russian elites about Chinese settlement inside Siberia – the so-called “yellow perils,” I like to call it. There’s a lot of public sentiment against China inside Russia that could get exacerbated the more they feel that they’re a client to the Chinese.

Jeff: There is a sense that I suppose if Putin had played things differently, if this level of insecurity that we’ve talked about was a lot less, if Russia saw itself differently, it could have been in an ideal global geopolitical position to take advantage of both positive and advantageous courting from both the West and from China.

Sam: Exactly. I think that Putin has played his cards very badly here. I think that the ideal scenario for Putin would have been to have engaged in either a protracted state of brinkmanship like he did last spring and hope to scare the West into getting some security guarantees – like maybe no NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia for a decade, or something like that. Or what Biden would controversially call “the limited incursion” into Eastern Ukraine that would have caused a bit of a ruckus and maybe marginally expanded the reach of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

It could even have been ended honorably. They didn’t even have to send Russian regular forces. They could have just provided more arms and covert support with separatist militias in those areas and achieved a bit more expansion of Donbas, and staged a referenda, and done what they wanted to do. And gotten maybe some guarantees from the West and without all the sanctions and punishment that they’re getting now. So Russia, if they were more moderate and they were more restrained, they could have actually gotten a much better outcome.

And in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were a lot of Russian academics who were talking about a future course of a Russia-India third pole in the world order that would lean towards the non-West. India would probably be a little closer to the US than China at the time because of all the Sino-Indian tensions over the border and the fact that India was blaming China for bringing COVID into their country and all this type of stuff. And Russia would lean closer to China, but it would be a third tripolar block in a tripolar order. And that’s what Russian academics and experts really wanted. And now that dream is probably dead. So, it’s been a blow from a lot of different standpoints.

Jeff: Sam, what are the scenarios that play out from exactly where we are today?

Sam: I think that much depends on what happens on the ground. I don’t think much is going to be achieved at the bargaining table. So, if Russia manages to succeed in this Donbas offensive, it’s probably not going to relinquish that territory even in a negotiated settlement, and it’ll hold referenda and create new people’s republics and incorporate that territory as much as possible into the Russian Federation. That’s one scenario that we see. A second scenario is some kind of a stalemate. And basically, the Russians find themselves in a situation where they’re basically back at the same borders that they were before the war.

And then they might engage in a little bit of diplomacy and try to see if they can get a bit of an alleviation of the sanctions. That’s the second scenario. That scenario might actually be more likely given the amount of Russian support that’s coming into Ukraine and given the strength of the Ukrainian resistance and the fact that the Russian army has just been so poorly coordinated so far. And a third outcome is what we just discussed earlier, a decisive Russian defeat that fuels a lot of recriminations and then more Russian aggression. That was probably the least likely of the three scenarios that I’ve listed, but we talked about it first, so here we go.

Jeff: And what’s the best course of action for both the US and NATO at this point?

Sam: I think that this war between Russia and Ukraine is not just a war between Russia and Ukraine. This is a war from Russia against the rules-based international order, against principles of state sovereignty, against global liberalism. It’s a war against everything the United States and the West holds dear as principles. So, the US and the West must give Ukraine whatever military support it needs to achieve a decisive victory against Russia. We’re already seeing good signs. We’re already seeing the movement of more artillery, the movement of more howitzers, those 20 pop-up jets that are being built by the Ukrainians coming in.

More air support is needed to recover the losses that Ukraine has experienced from the start of the war. A no-fly zone may not even be necessary with that because Ukraine can make a no-fly zone of its own. And sanctions against Russia need to be continued to be tightened, particularly with an energy embargo, and cutting more banks and oligarchs, as many as possible, out of the SWIFT system and the global financial system. So, a campaign of pressure against Russia and more in military support for Ukraine is needed.

And if diplomacy is reengaged with Russia, it should not be Macron, or the Chancellor of Austria, or somebody coming to Moscow and begging for a deal. It should be coming when the Russians feel that they have no other option, and they’re pursuing peace from a position of necessity. So, we have to fight the tough fight now and wait and see how Russia responds going forward.

Jeff: Talk about the Israelis in all of this, who made this kind of half-hearted attempt to broker some kind of solution early on.

Sam: So, Israel is facing a lot of problems with regards to this war. Obviously, being a close ally of the United States, it feels an obligation to condemn Russia, which it hasn’t done really in the past. It never condemned the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but it felt it had to do it this time. So now it’s come out and it’s condemned the, not just Russian war, but also accused Russia of war crimes, and joined only with Turkey, is the only Middle Eastern country to want to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. So, it’s done some stuff.

It’s also vowed to support sanctions enforcement. And it’s led to Zelensky talking to the Israeli Knesset. But it has not imposed sanctions of its own and is still wary about offending Russia too much because there’s a large Russian diaspora population inside Israel. And even more importantly, Russia has got a presence in Syria and a close alignment with Iran there. So it sees a security threat if it alienates Russia too much.

So, the Israelis feel that because they haven’t sanctioned Russia, and they’re not on the list of unfriendly countries from Russia, and they’ve done these maneuvers, which Ukraine would view to be acceptable, and Zelensky has even said that Ukraine’s future is to become a big Israel – a militarized democracy that’s a little bit different from Western liberal democracy. I think that Israel feels that it’s in a good position to act as a negotiator for maybe a final settlement. Maybe after Putin and Zelensky come to Jerusalem. Turkey also wants that.

They’re in a bit of a bidding war for that, but I think it’s less the fact that Israeli efforts have failed. Israel is one of the few countries that may actually have the capabilities of struggling between the two sides and helping facilitate a resolution. It’s more that there really isn’t a basis for diplomacy to happen. For example, this weekend, Zelensky offered to give up Crimea and make it a negotiable issue and negotiate a neutrality in exchange for an end to the war. The Russians responded by saying, that’s not enough. You have to announce Crimea is part of Russia right now. Withdraw completely from Donetsk and Luhansk, completely demilitarize yourself. Remove all your heavy weaponry, completely denazify yourself – which effectively means overthrowing your own government – and then we might talk about a cessation of hostilities. 

So, as long as Russia pushes for those maximalist objectives and Putin is goaded on by the aggressors inside his inner circle – like the Chechnyan strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, and so many in the Duma who are wanting Russia to occupy Kyiv, and not stop until that happens – I think that there’s no prospect for diplomacy. And Israel is doing its best, but it’s just dealing with a very, very difficult set of currents.

Jeff: Sam Ramani, his book soon to be out from Oxford University Press is Putin’s War on Ukraine: Russia’s Campaign for Global Counter-Revolution. Sam, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Sam: Thank you so much, Jeff. It was great.

Jeff: Thank you.


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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