Episode 72 : Jaroslava Barbieri on the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

In this episode of The International Risk Podcast, we speak to Jaroslava Barbieri, a doctoral researcher looking at Russia’s involvement in post-Soviet de factor states and related challenges to conflict resolution. She is currently a researcher at the Arena Programme at John Hopkins University and her research interests lie in the EU’s foreign and neighborhood policy, Russian foreign policy, NATO, post-Soviet transition, conflict transformation, political communication and misperceptions, misinformation strategies and history of political ideas.

International podcast interview transcript with Jara Barbieri

Dominic Bowen 01:10

Good morning. My name is Dominic Bowen and I’m the host of The International Risk Podcast. Today we’re joined by Jara Barbeiri, a doctoral researcher with the University of Birmingham. She’s also a researcher at the arena programme at the John Hopkins University, where she’s looking at Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Moldova. I’m really looking forward to unpacking some of the really contemporary and very relevant risk issues involving risk issues occurring in Eastern Europe at the moment. Welcome to the podcast, Jara.

Jara Barbieri 01:35

Thank you for having me.

Dominic Bowen 01:41

There’s so many topics I want to unpack with you. But perhaps, if we can start with the war in Ukraine, as it started in 2014, in the Donbass region, we know that was one of the indicators. There’s the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the Donbass in 2014, where there’s been 14,000 people killed. And then more recently, there’s been a lot of indicators ahead of the February invasion of Ukraine. But how did we get to the point where there was war in 2014?

Jara Barbieri 02:15

Some might say that this is the easiest question to answer to, but sometimes it’s the most difficult one, because how far back do we go to explain current events. But even if we just stick to the Putin era, we could say that one critical point of juncture was Putin’s Munich speech in 2007, when it became clear that he was rejecting what he saw as the US led unipolar, international liberal order. And so that was already a clear warning sign that there are emerging competing views of how international order should be organised. And of course, not long after that we had the NATO Bucharest summit where there was a political declaration that someone promised Ukraine and Georgia, a potential NATO membership perspective, and some say that that is what triggered the Russia Georgia war in 2008. And that was already the first big warning sign that international borders could be questioned, and then Russia is ready to do so. And back then quite a few were saying that the next hotspot is going to be Crimea. But these views were somewhat dismissed as being an exaggeration, and so on, no one paid attention. If we fast forward a few years, of course, in 2013-14, there were the very famous Euromaidan protests and what in Ukraine is called Revolution of Dignity, and that essentially started as a protest among special the most active members of the Ukrainian society against the former president Yanukovych’s decision to revise the decision to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. But then one night, there was a massive beat up of students. And it became this national movement against the regime and its authoritarian nature. And of course, that was quite a warning sign for Putin’s regime because it was perceived as this potential model of democratisation and regime change that Russians could take inspiration from. And that was perceived as a real threat. It was, you know, framed as a Western orchestrated call, which is quite not accurate. But nonetheless, there was a big, big threat preceded by the Kremlin. And that kind of void of state power that Ukraine found itself in those early months of 2014 were exploited for the annexation of Crimea, where there was strong Russian military presence for years through the Black Sea Fleet. And it was infiltrated by the FSB. The invasion in eastern Ukraine, that many considered to be a hybrid war, in the sense that the word non state actors that, you know, coordinated a lot of the local insurgency, but clearly there was a strong military Russian presence for command and coordination purposes.

Dominic Bowen 05:07

Putin’s Munich speech in 2007, is certainly mentioned by a lot of people as is a big flag in the sand and a significant international risk indicator. And you also mentioned the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008, which I think a lot of people were speaking about back in January, when people were asking “should Ukraine be a member of NATO?” “What’s been promised to Ukraine and what’s Russia fearful of?” And then, of course, you know, you mentioned the Russian perception that there was a Western orchestrated coup. Based on that, do you think the invasion of Georgia and you know, we’re seeing at the moment some tensions in Georgia and continued calls for independence-we’ve got tensions in Moldova, in the east of Moldova, just near Odessa-Do you think that the invasion of Ukraine was inevitable? It was always going to happen?

Jara Barbieri 05:54

Well, that’s a bit the $1 million question, right? I think that it was inevitable, in the sense that, you know, the West is a bit in a situation you’re damned if you do damned if you don’t. So, if the West shows a strong position of support towards Ukraine, and in this case, for example, continues to supply weapons, then Russia can sort of reframe it as an act of aggression. Western sanctions have been already labelled as an act of Western aggression. And that can be exploited also for the use of non conventional weapons, by the way. It basically creates a potential for escalation. If the West does not show a strong position and tries to sort of go back to business as usual, close an eye on Russia’s violation of international law as it has been done before 2014, Russia will perceive it as a sign of weakness, and we’ll try to exploit it to try and get more leverage to try and obtain its own objectives. So that, I think is a situation that we need to take into account. But also, it’s inevitable when we look at domestic processes inside Russia, there was recently an article in The Economist, I believe, that talks about the salinization of Russia, and this is something we come back to also later, but it’s very, very worrying for anyone who’s currently observing the militarization and mass indoctrination inside Russia society. So, we can discuss how we got to this point, but there’s also the part of the discussion of how we’re going to get out of here. Many say that, you know, however the war is going to develop, even if tomorrow we had some sort of conflict settlement agreement, there’s this sense in Russian society that they are the victims of all of this. And we know what happened with example, between World War One and World War Two, that sense of humiliation that a country can have and how it can just feed more militaristic appetite. So there are lots and lots of processes. I’m going currently in the moment that, you know, make me quite pessimistic about a potential conflict resolution anytime soon.

Dominic Bowen 08:06

It’s very, very difficult. I get asked a lot by businesses leaders and risk managers around Europe, about when the conflict will end or what is going to end the conflict. Everyone wants to know when the international risk landscape will return to a state less complex. And I think that is just such a difficult, difficult question. I loathe war, I hate war. I’ve worked in most of the major war zones over the last 2020 years. And I’m so desperately and amazingly proud of friends and colleagues in Ukraine, and the people of Ukraine and what they are achieving, because I think that the fear is that the only thing that will stop Russia’s military machine will be actually stopping the military machine. And the Ukrainians right now are the only ones that are able to do that or willing to do that or have the political will to do that. The entire international risk environment is being safeguarded by Ukrainian’s right now. But I wonder, you know, Putin wrote that 5000 word essay about Ukraine and Russia being one back in June, so we’re talking nearly a year ago now. We saw increasing control of Russia over Belarus and Kazakhstan. We saw the February 19 joint communique with China about spheres of influence. You know, the Biden administration was advocating and publicising the six months of troop buildups along the border. We saw so many warning signs that many analysts missed but were quite clear to most. I wonder what the West, what the European Union and even what businesses should have done before late February, I mean, after February and in March and into April. You know, everyone from Airbus to Airbnb has withdrawn from Russia or suspended operations. The unity of the European Union has been surprisingly solid. There are definitely cracks but it’s been a lot more solid than I think nearly anyone would have would have preferred acted. There has been, you know, the continual movement of support into Ukraine. But I wonder if the West should have done more, and if private companies should have done more before late February? What are your thoughts about that?

Jara Barbieri 10:00

Well, I think that if we look back at the sanctions that were imposed because of the annexation of Crimea, and we look at the sanctions imposed right now, we saw that more could have been done. And I think that the fact that the Western response was unanimous in condemning the first forceful change of borders in Europe since World War Two with the annexation of Crimea, that there was unified, was already a good sign. But nonetheless, the fact that was not strong enough that it could have been stronger signal to Putin, that the red lines of international law could be pushed further. And so that process had already started with the Russia Georgia war, so I think there was a build-up process to that. From different government we’re seeing and hearing that, yes, the sanctions are going to hit hard you’re going to see, but there are economic analysis to see that Russian economy is now adjusting, and that, yes, there’s going be a recession, that there is going to be an inflation, but the Russian economy will adjust that our kind of stabilisation mechanism to prop up the ruble. And the propaganda machine is, again, as I mentioned, before framing Western sanctions at the maximum aggression. And therefore we can push these kind of narratives of, of mass victimisation and sort of feed into the fake narrative of the great victory. Just like in the past, our ancestors went through lots of sacrifices for the greatness of our nation. Here, I call upon your rations to sustain the sacrifice yet again, for a greater purpose. So you know, it’s still yet to see how successful these narratives will go once you know, sanctions will start hitting ordinary Russians more and more. But for the time being, they’re working, I think. So that’s still something to see.

Dominic Bowen 11:47

I mean, you just said that you know that the sanctions have been effective. But do you think that there’s a tipping point that can be encouraged to end the war in Ukraine, that’s not military? Or do you think that the only end to this conflict will be a military victory of one side?

Jara Barbieri 12:04

Well, this is a very interesting question. I think that here we enter the realm of discussions on what are the possible obstacles to conflict resolution, and I think there are several obstacles at play. The first one is simply distrust between Ukraine and Russia. Recurrently Russia has demonstrated that it does not stick to the agreements that it takes, if we go back to 1994 and the Budapest Memorandum that has been mentioned in any possible media outlets, but essentially this was a memorandum in which Ukraine in exchange for its nuclear stockpile its nuclear arsenal (And I’d like to remind that back it had the third nuclear stockpile in the world, after Russia and the United States) in exchange for that the security guarantees as part of this memorandum, ie Russia, the US and UK promise the respect of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

You know, they say Ukraine already won the moral war. But nonetheless, despite the heavy losses that the Russian Armed Forces have already received, they still have enough supplies weaponry to continue this military effort for quite some time. So we know that because of their strategic military disaster in taking Kiev, that’s what they thought that they would be taking the country in three days in a blitzkrieg. Now, the military effort has refocused in the east and south, and ultimately, that’s why Mariupol is such a strategic point is because that would allow Russia to create a territorial corridor between the occupied areas of Donbass and Crimea. Further down, they would like to go through Odessa and trying to reconnect also with Transnistria, which is the de facto state in eastern Moldova with a Russian military presence on the ground.

Dominic Bowen 14:05

Yeah, no, I think you’re spot on and I was actually in Mariupol in mid February, when I was meeting with Ukrainians in Mariupol, I was asking them, what do they feel, what’s their assessment? And sadly, everyone consistently gave the answer that no, nothing will happen, everything will be fine. And the amount of times I drew a map of Ukraine on the back of an envelope or the back of a book and just sit and look at this: “this is the territory that Russian backed separatists currently controlled”. Crimea, as well, as you know, the east of Moldova looks to anyone looking at a map that Mariupol would have to be a key city to take to link up the land corridor between Russia and Donbass. And then down to Crimea, which are particularly important noting that there was what massive water shortages in Crimea and that can only be rectified by taking more of the Ukrainian land. But there was just that refusal to accept that, which is just so tragic, tragic consequences in Ukraine at the moment.

If we look a little bit larger, if we look outside of Ukraine, we see the security landscape, I don’t think it’s actually radically changed that much. I think people’s perception and people’s understanding has radically changed. I mean, even in January and February, when I’ll be speaking with people outside of Ukraine, there was still this recognition, this understanding that the world is peaceful, there’s not going to be another significant war, countries don’t invade each other in 2022, that just doesn’t happen. Whereas now, obviously, there is a recognition that these things can happen, and the security that Europe’s enjoyed for the last few decades, is perhaps no longer guaranteed. Well, it’s definitely no longer guaranteed knowing what’s happening in Ukraine right now. We’ve seen Finland and Sweden move closer to NATO, particularly Finland. I think Finland’s really led the charge. The Swedish Prime Minister said at the start of the conflict, that Sweden shouldn’t join NATO, that Sweden should remain neutral, with obvious people arguing about what does neutrality mean,when they’re the sort of atrocities that we’re seeing in Ukraine. And one of the arguments that the Swedish Prime Minister made was that Sweden should remain neutral, because if they didn’t remain neutral, they’d be the victims of further Russian aggression. Which perhaps I think in this regard, there’s actually an argument as to why Sweden should join NATO, not why they shouldn’t join NATO. But Sweden seems to be following Finland’s need and moving closer to NATO. What do you think the implications for the European Union, and Finland and Sweden, are of potential NATO enlargement?

Jara Barbieri 16:40

Well, and by the way, Russia already said that they’d be consequences if Finland and Sweden decided to join. So clearly, this is a question that exposes very well what a massive miscalculation and strategic blunder Russia’s decision to invite Ukraine was, because, essentially, it’s a war that materializes all of Putin’s fear. You know, one of the biggest fears that Putin had is that Ukraine would be this united country with a kind of rejection of being part of this Russian world, and there’s nothing more unifying than an external invasion. One of the recurrent efforts in Russian foreign policy has been trying to divide western partners and drive wedges in existing alliances. And now with this invasion, you know, NATO have found a new reason d’être. I’d like to remind that also for years, one of the major points of contention coming from the Kremlin was that “what’s the point of NATO”, it was a cold war relic, “you have no other threats now to be afraid of, so what’s the point of keeping it alive?” If NATO were to expand, this could be exploited by Russia for a new escalation that would go beyond Ukraine. This is, you know, a very, kind of delicate discussion and none of us has a crystal ball, but many ask, you know, why doesn’t the West do more? And I’m always a bit confused, and concerned on how to answer this question, because on the one hand, I think the West is doing a lot, and I’m shocked by how much is doing. But at the same time, from a sense of survival as a survival instinct, it makes sense to try and contain the conflict within Ukraine and support the Ukrainian Armed Forces as much as possible with a continuous supply of military weapons of mass economic and financial assistance plans in place for reconstructions, a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine, these are all crucial points. But many were asking me, you know, Why there’s no establishment of a no fly zone? In the early days of the war, that was one of the key demands coming from Kyiv. And of course, essentially, the answer is simple: it is trying to avoid World War three. But you know, some are now offering a counter response like: are we already in some sort of hybrid World War three. Is it just a bit naive to think that because we haven’t had missiles currently in on NATO territory, then we can sort of not call it World War three? But if anyone pays attention to the rhetoric coming from the Kremlin, I mean, even in their military doctrine, there’s this article that essentially says that nuclear weapons can be used if there is an attack on Russia with conventional weapons. And we know that since Soviet times there’s this typical military tactic of false flag operations where essentially you engineer a provocation, and then pin the blame on your opponent to try and provoke an escalation. And many say that that’s what they did in Chechnya, and they doing this, potentially, again, in Ukraine. So there have been these strikes on the regions bordering with Russia. And that can at any point being exploited as a pretext for a new escalation.

Dominic Bowen 20:24

Yeah, I totally agree with era that the war in Ukraine has definitely mobilised Europe sphere of Russia, and the need for solidarity and a stronger NATO and I think that’s one of the things that has thus far kept the European Union quite close. As united as you can have a block with that many countries. United.

Jara Barbieri 20:40

I was reading an article the other day, “is the UK making itself a target for Russian retaliation?” Again, I go back to the points that Western countries are in a situation damned if you do them if you don’t. You know, we know that Britain has shown incredible military assistance, military support to Ukraine, sending NLAW antitank missiles, Starstreak anti aircraft missiles, training Ukrainian armed forces… There is continuous intelligence, operational support. There’s been a recent military cooperation agreement also signed that could strengthen for example, Ukraine’s naval capabilities. And as a result of the invasion, finally, there’s also more talk about a crackdown on dirty money flowing into London, that was the safe haven for dirty money coming, not just from Russia, but from other countries as well. And so, you know, all of these signs of support to Ukraine can be exploited as a pretext for an escalation, also towards NATO members. Everyone takes the cautious approach and tries to say that Russia won’t go that far, there can be some save rattling, maybe close to the NATO air base borders.. But nonetheless, it’s just that the back of my mind, I always have this, you know, little alarm bell.

Dominic Bowen 22:10

No, I think that’s I think that’s totally fair. And for anyone that thinks that, you know, these threats might not emerge, there is within the Swedish territory alone, without going into great details, there are regular naval incursions, air incursions. The amount of cyber attacks that are occurring not just on Swedish businesses, but on Swedish government institutions, every single week. There’s not a week that’s gone by in the last year where one of my clients hasn’t been hit by a major cyber attack. And I think in nearly every occasion, the origins have been Russian groups or state sponsored groups in Russia. So the threats are very, very real, and I think NATO and European Union solidarity and concern is very justified. We saw that President Zelensky signs Ukraine’s application for EU membership in record time, which I think, everyone was quite happy with. But the other side of that equation is the process to actually join the European Union. I think the fastest could was, you know, 1400 days when Austria, Finland and Sweden join the European Union, and that was a long time ago. Yes, there was a lot of positive feelings about Zielinski signing the application., but in reality, do you think that this is something that will have an impact at all in Ukraine in the near future? Or do you think it is, was really just a propaganda win for the week when that occurred?

Jara Barbieri 23:35

When talking about Ukraine’s EU membership perspective, now, I always get quite sad, because until the invasion, there was this dream of a lifetime for an entire nation. And now it’s not so shiny anymore. Because essentially, now EU membership as part of the negotiation has been demoted to some sort of bargaining chip in exchange for neutrality so in the negotiation, there was this idea that maybe the Russian delegation was ready to accept Ukraine’s EU membership in exchange for neutrality. So a promise that there would be no NATO enlargement, as we know, other countries in Central Eastern Europe, for them, actually, NATO and EU membership were quite parallel processes.

In terms of how long it might take, from a Ukrainian perspective, they always knew that it would take longer. I think that some of the frustrations was some initial statements coming from France, for example, “yes, we’re going to promise a hasty accelerated process”. And then taking steps back. Ukraine never requested an accelerated path to European membership. So it’s more about just having a concrete promise and perspective on the table and not just empty rhetoric. On the positive side, something that could accelerate the process, nonetheless, is that since 2017 the Association Agreement has been enforced. And so over the years, Ukraine has actually implemented quite a lot of the European acquis communautaires (essentially, it is the body of legislation that EU member states share), recently Ukraine has joined the US electric grid. So there’s lots and lots of processes of harmonisation that have been going on over the years that definitely made Ukraine more prepared to start the process. An interesting development in this regard is that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine were considered this associate trio. So in 2009, the European Union set up this Eastern Partnership framework that essentially was meant to coordinate the US relations with Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Armenia. And the latter three countries sort of fell out of this. Clearly, they have followed the more Eurasian path. And so until the invasion that started on the 24th of February 2022, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova were consider the most successful countries in terms of implementing the right reforms, and it was like this bundle. But actually, Ukraine was quite annoyed with the decision of Georgia and Moldova to sort of get on the bandwagon and apply at the same time, it was perceived a bit as the exploitation of the tragic momentum in which Ukraine found itself, and another source of tensions is that Moldova and Georgia have yet to impose sanctions on Russia. There’s also very tense relations now with Moldova in terms of supply of certain weapons aircrafts. They’ve been rumours about potential mobilisation from Transnistria that would open a western front inside Ukraine that thus far I have been fairly quieter compared to other fronts in Ukraine. So clearly, Russia’s invasion is changing in a lot of ways how we look at the role of the European Union for these countries, but also how Russia’s role as a security guarantee in Eurasian space will change.

Dominic Bowen 27:10

Jara your research is focusing on the role of Russian state and non state actors in facilitating nation building processes in the Donetsk region and the Luhansk region. Can you walk us through who these actors actually are? And how are they actually shaping the de-sovereignisation process in the East of Ukraine?

Jara Barbieri 27:30

De-sovereignisation is the concept that I came up with to describe essentially all of those de facto integration processes that the Russian Federation is promoting between the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine and Transnistria on the one hand, and the Russian Federation on the other hand. But then in parallel, the ? until the 24th of February, actually, until the 21st of February 2022, when Russia recognised the two republics in eastern Ukraine, the plan was to reintegrate these regions back into Ukraine following the model that they’ve been promoting in Moldova. Already, I’d like to remind that there are these Russian state officials such as Kazak, who has become very famous and Ukrainian for this Kazak memorandum back in the early 2000s. And essentially, the goal has always been to try and dismember the statehood have countries like Ukraine and Moldova from within, but trying to promote some sort of federalization that in practice would mean that lots of states within the states in a way that essentially the country would no longer be really functional. And so this is something that I’ve been monitoring since the beginning of the war in 2014, under different domains that I’m looking at. Military security cooperation, now we know that lots of youth that has joined local military academies, is now being recruited to go to the battlefield in Ukraine. The educational system is very interesting, the mass indoctrination programmes that they try to impose to sort of detach the region from the historical memory of Ukraine and trying to attach Donbass as part and parcel of the historical evolution of the rational state and the Russian nation. Passportisation processes, the use of even cryptocurrency to try and go around sanctions and keep propping up these de facto leaders. So what’s interesting is that whenever we look at Russia’s involvement in these de facto states, we have to look at the interplay between formal and informal actors and structures in Russian foreign policy. So we have directly Russian state officials and representatives of the Russian State Duma, coordinating the de facto integration processes between Donbass and the Russian Federation. But there are also more non-state actors former Russian veterans that are involved in indoctrination programmes for local youth, and militarization of local youth. I was shocked when I started this research with the amount of evidence that is available online. They have all of these fancy websites that have all of their so called legislation uploaded in PDF, and I can just very easily track how they trying to essentially create a parallel system of power that does not allow a country like Ukraine to have effective control over part of its territory and population. So you know, there’s lots of discussions about how the war is going change local modes, this has been like a long growing process that could be a portion of the local population that originally was in favour of joining the Russian Federation back in 2014, as part of this Russian spring, as they call it kind of movement. But clearly over the years, it became clear that this de facto leadership is just a corrupt regime that takes lots of money from Russia sometimes just put it in their own pockets, and the population is not seeing the benefits of it. So the status of Crimea and above, still remain outside current discussions between Ukraine and Russia, there’s no easy solution, these will be processes that will take a very long time.

Dominic Bowen 31:27

Yeah, I’ve got a very serious concern that even when we eventually can get to a place of peace within Ukraine, that the East of Ukraine and Crimea may remain often negotiating and we may end up with some sort of a Kurdish or Palestinian type, I don’t wanna use the word solution, because I don’t think it’s a solution but, situation where there’s just this absence of war, but far from the creation of peace in those in those areas.

Jara Barbieri 31:55

And the fact is that Russia is currently trying to replicate the same scenario in other regions in South Ukraine, for example, there’s this Kherson trying to set up a so called Kherson People’s Republic. And so there are already reports, and a Russian forces, you know, printing out bulletins and papers for a referendum and independence, and this is just a very old trick that they’ve used over and over again, it’s just a compared to 2014, when lots of observers also in the West sort of bought into this narrative and believe that there was some sort of bottom up self-determination movement. There was really none. If someone studies the relationship between regions and centre in Ukraine over the years, there were maybe tensions with the centre but there was never new ? movements. So clearly, this is quite engineer, from the Russian Silovik to try and destabilise Ukraine from within.

Dominic Bowen 33:00

Definitely, I think you’re totally correct. We need lots of good leaders and good politicians. So Jara, when you become President of the European Union, tomorrow maybe… We’ve learned a lot over the last couple of months, and we’ve had a really serious and painful reality check. There’s a lot of geopolitical dynamics, foreign policy, domestic policy, not just in Europe, but really around the world, this is going to be quite impactful. And the fear of significant food shortages, food insecurity, and the sort of political instability that will bring throughout the Middle East and Africa that heavily relied on Ukraine and Russia grain exports. If you became president of the European Union tomorrow, what would be some of the first decisions you made?

Jara Barbieri 33:42

Good question. And well, first of all, I’ve always been quite a big fan of trying to understand domestic processes inside countries like Russia. So clearly now we see that this is not just, you know, a Russian disagreement with Ukraine. And that’s it; this is essentially a confrontation between the West and Russia, on the battlefields of Ukraine. And clearly, I think that we have started to understand that if Ukraine falls then the post-World War II international liberal order as we’ve known it is going to follow suit. So we are witnessing a confrontation now between democratic powers and authoritarian powers, democratic values and authoritarian values. And so it’s very important that that model of peace, the EU originally began as a project of peace, is not just empty slogans. When we say the EU embodies values of democracy and peaceful coexistence between nations, the actions have to match these words. And so I believe that men in the West just didn’t see this coming because they were just too intellectually lazy to see certain processes occurring inside Russia. Even the other day, I was just seeing how in a southern region in Russia, where the Orthodox Easter is coming, they have been baking these little Easter cakes with the Zed symbol on them, which is the symbol currently appearing on Russian military equipment, and it’s everywhere now in buildings. And so it’s essentially this letter used as part of the pro war propaganda machine inside Russia. And there are all of these flash mobs that then there’s a video showing from up above, and people are lined up as Zed. So my biggest conviction is that the only way to go back to some sort of peace inside European continent, the only way for Russia to normalise its relations with European Union and the rest of the world is for Russian society to go through the same process that Germany did after World War Two. And that means a process of institutionalising collective responsibility and reviewing its historical memory, because, you know, the history that we studied in school is not the history that Russian youth studies. So the Ribbentrop, Molotov pact, for example. And the secret protocols between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union split Europe into two spheres of influence in 1939, this is not studied in Russia. And so this is how the narrative of the big silent victory and Russia presenting itself as a liberator of Europe from clashes can continue. And there’s constantly these parallels established between the Great Patriotic War – This is how they call World War Two – and the war in eastern Ukraine, current war is this constant a historical fight with fascists without admitting fascist processes currently really occurring inside Russia. Saying that Ukraine has never had a historical statehood, deporting 1000s of people from Mariupol and other cities inside Russia is a violation of international humanitarian law, is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and forcing these people to sign documents to say that they’re willing to stay inside Russia to work for two years. And that’s, you know, clearly also a reflection of the problems, demographic problems inside Russia.

We have to see more long term implications of the war, you mentioned obligation for food security. Ukraine and Russia accounted for a third of grain exports to the world, half of world exports have sunflower oil, and there are countries in the Middle East Africa that are massively dependent on these exports. And so the potential risk for famine, and new migration flows as a result of this. It’s just something that we have to keep in mind. So again, if I were the president of the European Union, I just invite all of my colleagues to understand how these processes are all interconnected. And we cannot just stick to some empty slogans without doing in practice things that can play to contain some of these processes.

Dominic Bowen 38:19

I know you’ve got quite close links with Ukraine and you and I speak to people in Ukraine most days but what’s the feeling you’re getting from inside Ukraine at the moment? Obviously, there’s parts of the country, I’ve got friends in the in the east and it’s clearly quite worrying about the war with a wider front is that in golfing from Kharkiv down to Kramatorsk and Mariupol. And then of course, I can’t think of an appropriate word to describe the situation in Mariupol and then right across, but then you’ve got parts of  Lviv now, and middle of Lviv has been the victims of missile attacks over the last couple of months. But then Kyiv has been largely liberated, with many shops and restaurants opening up again. What’s the feeling that you’re getting from people you speak with inside Ukraine at the moment?

Jara Barbieri 39:07

Well, for example, my mom and my grandma still in here. So clearly, the first week was horrible. You know, the first days no sleep, trying to understand what’s going on and begging them to leave, I had several evacuation plans in place. One thing that this war assured me all of is the extraordinary ability of Ukrainians to self-organise, literally just texting and in a telegram chat, I have these two people that need to be evacuated from point A and point B and the amount of times that within five minutes, I would receive some response or contact details to reach out to someone, it’s quite extraordinary. So clearly, I guess, friends from different regions, replied to me differently. And it’s just so tragic to see also former colleagues with whom we’ve been working on these research projects, before they were recruiting people for focus groups on research projects I was involved in, and now they’re part of the Territorial Defence unit in Kiev. And journalists that are doing this extraordinary work and have this extraordinary courage to travel through the countries and collect these stories from people who have lost everything. And you see these people looking at their flat that no longer exists, and flat they may have lived in for decades. How can we drive into begin to comprehend people who suddenly have nothing left people who saw their parents or their children being killed in front of their eyes, mothers seeing the daughters being raped in front of the eyes? It’s going to be a collective trauma that will take a very, very long time  to come to terms with but one very clear feeling that I’m getting from friends and family in Ukraine is that there’s no way back, this is the point of no return. Finally, the world would stop seeing Ukraine as some appendix of Russia. Ukraine is an independent country with its own cultural heritage history, a political priorities, economic potential, it’s just the country with an incredible human capital. But I think that despite all of this tragedy, there’s this sense that finally the world has seen us. And we’re going to show the world’s what Ukraine is capable of, to assert its position as an independent, free country.

Dominic Bowen 41:35

Yeah, I think you’re totally right about that. It’s fantastic that, you know, we’re able to eventually remove that scenario, as you said, what did you say, is Ukraine being an appendix of Russia? And I think all the negative connotations that come with that, and when friends and family and colleagues were asking: “what was it like in Ukraine”? when I came back, and my response was “fantastic!”, that people were beautiful, they were generous, they were friendly, they couldn’t give enough of their time to support me and the work I was doing, the food and the culture was just so rich. I wish I had had longer there, and then everyone would just look at me with this: “Really, really, is that true?” You’ve got to visit it, you’ve got to go. And my plan was actually to go back in March or April, if things hadn’t escalated with my son to take him on a holiday and explore Kyiv and parts in the West as well. Which we will do, we will do at some point. Definitely. But no, I think that’s a really positive that’s come out, that people are more aware of Ukraine, more aware of the history and more aware of … It is a great country, and there’s so much going for it. And once we eventually get through this war, and hopefully more people we’ll able to see that. As we delve further into 2022, what are some of the main risks that you’re monitoring around the world?

Jara Barbieri 42:44

Well, I’d say that connected to the war. Again, we touched briefly upon this as well. But I think that the implications for food security is something that is being overlooked. But I think there will become more and more clear that this war has implications not just for European security, but for global security. Again, I think that domestic development inside Russia will destabilise global security for years to come. So I think this is one of the most urgent tasks to monitor very closely, moods and dynamics inside Russia, that rhetoric towards other countries that attempt to sort of avoid sanctions and try to set up alliances with non-democratic countries, and so how there will also impact this, how we see this international liberal order how, it operates. Recently, there were reports that potentially there could be a revision of veto power members of the UN Security Council. So there’s just so many global implications outside of Europe as a result of this conflict. So, truly, you have the most immediate ones, economic, food security, you have more abstract ones, such as you know, the future of international law, the future of how we regulate relationship between us as different states. And then finally, one very interesting process, but is this readiness to potentially get rid of its energy dependence on Russia. And that is not just a matter of European security, but that’s also a window of opportunity to finally really push more green policies because again, when we’re involved in conflict, it’s just there’s nothing else that we can think of. But you know, the threat of climate change has not gone anywhere. So it’s very interesting also, to see how this process of trying and reduce energy dependence on Russians oil and gas could also become a window of opportunity for a more ambitious green agenda in the EU.

Dominic Bowen 44:41

Yeah, look, I really hope that we can move towards that wherever there is risk, there’s always opportunity and I think, as you said before, these changes will be painful, but whilst we’re all willing to pay the price, I think most people today have recognised the freedom and the rule of law doesn’t come for free. There is a significant cost, and most people are willing to pay that at the moment. And I think if we can also capitalise on that for strengthening things like the UN Security Council and the way the rule of law is enforced and pushing for greater adaptation to the climate change and green policies that we’ve been talking about for a long time, but missing some of the real action, I think there could be a really positive outcome of this current tragedy in Eastern Europe. But thank you very much for coming on the podcast today.

Jara Barbieri 45:23

Thank you for having me. Hopefully see you in Kyiv.

Dominic Bowen 45:26

Fantastic. Well, that was a really insightful conversation with Jara Barbieri, a doctoral researcher with the University of Birmingham and a researcher at the arena programme of John Hopkins University. Thanks for listening to The International Risk Podcast and we’ll see you again next week.

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