Episode 78: Ruslan Bortnik on the War in Ukraine

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In this episode Dominic Bowen speaks to Ruslan Bortnik, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of politics. 

He is a former executive head of the humanitarian mission Black Tulip and Vice Chairman of the public council of the MOFA for Ukraine.

He works as the head of committee of public council and executive head of public council for MOD in Ukraine.

Interview Transcript with Ruslan Bortnik

Dominic Bowen 00:14

Welcome to the International risk podcast. My name is Dominic Bowen, and I’m the host. Today we’re joined by Ruslan Bortnick. And he’s the head of the Ukrainian Institute of Politics. He’s the former executive head of the humanitarian mission black tulip, and vice chairman of the public council of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Ukraine, and the head of the Committee of Public Council and executive head of the Public Council for the Ministry of Defence in Ukraine. I had the pleasure of meeting with Rosalyn in person in Kyiv, a few weeks ago, and I’m really excited to continue this conversation today on the podcast. Welcome to the podcast was Lin.

Ruslan Bortnek 00:45

Hello, Dominic, thank you for this great invitation. We will try to think together and continue our thinking over about the situation around Ukraine.

Dominic Bowen 00:50

Thank you very much. It’s a very interesting country, as I know you agree and anyone that has worked and visited Ukraine will certainly agree that it’s a wonderful country full of beautiful people and a very complex political landscape, both in Ukraine and externally. And of course, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the ongoing war in Ukraine, which makes this conversation even more important for our listeners. Perhaps, Ruslan we can start by unpacking some of your work and the work you did with the humanitarian mission with black Chela. What was that?

Ruslan Bortnek 01:25

Well, it was my role working in Project, which started in 2014 in August. Before the war, before 2014 and the war in Donbass, I had a hobby, with my friends. there is a big network of NGOs in Ukraine, we would work in our holidays like searchers, very special searchers looking for bodies, or remains of soldiers of First and Second World War. We made a lot of trips around Ukraine and Europe also. Our organisation has good contacts in Germany, and Hungarian partners. We were looking for these remains, these soldiers, unnamed soldiers. We try to recognise them and we reburial them in the official place. And so we have a good team, more than 100 person, who was very experienced in such type of work, So when the war in Donbass started, Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, invited us to go to the after the surrounding and the fighting and after the fighting and gather bodies of Ukrainian soldiers on that place.

It was between Ukrainian and Russian wars. Russian troops will not let you Ukrainian troops, Ukrainian soldiers to go to the place to gather the bodies. And, of course they are warranties from Ukrainian side.

We also have very good partners in Donbass and Donetsk, partners before that war, and our partners from Donetsk and Lugansk said that they take duties or responsibilities for our doings of the place. And after this negotiation between in NGOS, Ministry of Defence in Ukraine and the ministry of Defence we go to that territory and start to gather the remains, we started the exhumation of different burial places. And this work continues more than 4 years, and was supported by the HRSC. And it was the financed by grants from the Switzerland embassy in Ukraine. And during this work, we found and exhumated , we found and transported to the official borders more than 850 bodies of Ukrainian soldier and civilians, ad more than 150 bodies so called “combattants”, DPR.

And nowadays, our small worker teams are continuing their work in the battlefields, but in general, our mission is paused because there is no general agreement between the sides of war, between Ukraine and Russia.  There is no methodology, procedure, how to change theses bodies. And so it works in head level and local level, but it does not work in general level.. I have of course, I obtained great and very sad experience in that work, because we saw the war, the real war. And of course we had war after the war.

Dominic Bowen  05:15

That’s very interesting. Thanks very much for explaining this Ruslin. So before Russia invaded in February, we were watching a slight decline in President Zielinski, president of Ukraine’s popularity. Now, he came in he was a relatively new politician when he was elected to the presidency. And he initially had quite a lot of popularity. But that was changing. Then, of course, Russia invaded. And he’s now a wartime president. And I understand he’s quite popular. How would you describe the current political environment in Ukraine, now that you are in the midst of a battle with the world’s second largest army?

Ruslan Bortnek 05:55

Great, very difficult question. Because many of my colleagues said that we are very united country, we are fighting very strong against the Russian invasion. Of course, it’s true, but not all the truth. And, of course, Ukrainian president now is very popular in Ukraine, but not extremely politically popular, like it was two months ago. And the political environment inside of Ukraine also is changed. So in the first month of war, Ukrainian society, Ukrainian politician system, Ukrainian army, united around the president and his team. And moreover, Ukrainian president showed a lot of personal brain. And his government, his team showed a lot of professional government in that situation,

But it was the first month. And then we saw that people in Ukraine become more and more tired, fatigue. And we saw new elements of political struggle in Ukraine between the Zelinsky team and Poloshenko team, for example.

It’s extremely difficult we need more than 5 billions dollars every month to cover our budget deficit. It’s only for social, economical, local part of our government. We are not counting the military expense is military expenses. It’s more than 10 billion dollars deficit every month. I think time is not a good thing for Zelensky and for his team, because the brave and mobilisation of Ukrainians, Ukrainian society shows is going is going down and then we are waiting for them more difficult time.

Dominic Bowen  07:55

And for anyone wanting to understand the potential for Ukraine, and understand the political machinations of the country, what should they know about people like Zelinsky and Poroshenko. And even people like Medvedchuk was recently arrested in apparently has ties to Russia as one example. Who are some of the key players and what should we know about these politicians?

Ruslan Bortnek 0818

All bring in politicians, are like kids or oligarchs all of them. Of course, in the few first days of war, all the system was scared because of Russian intervention and because of Kremlin’s plan, to destroy not only the country, but also Ukrainian political elites, which was built during last 30 year after independence,

Now we see how they’re struggling, competition for the resources is growing up. Now we see a lot of problem with the corruption, the low effective government. In these days, many, many, many problems are growing up talking about the key players, of course President and his team are the key players in Ukraine.

And they are still the most popular in Ukraine from the electoral side, the rating so of our President is 50 to 82% of support.  the second player is Poroshenko. He became less popular but at the same time, he is a very rich person with his own mass media and with good presence in Ukrainian army and Ukrainian powerful border states with a state body. And it was good connections abroad of Ukraine in the United States and Western Europe at the same time. On the popularity of Poroshenko was a very bad impact to those who said too few weeks ago that Poroshenko was his partner.

Another Ukrainian players are behind the curtains, like a Tymoshenko or they are only are only are trying to find their their own away to the political mounting ? Ukrainian political life now, it’s also concentrated on the regional level, there is a big competition in the regional level local level, between the local council, between the head of cities, and the war system of civic military administration, which was fulfilled by the president after the starting of this war. And, of course, there is a big competition between different political and between different powerful parties in Ukraine. I am talking about different special services, teams, different bodies in the military sphere, which are competing between them for success. It’s very usual situation for such moment. But the President of Ukraine even looks unchangeable. There is also dangerous force that are building in Ukraine; one person political system. But it is a problem for the future, and for now there is a big necessity for the better government.

Dominic Bowen 11:26

It’s a very complex but certainly a very interesting political landscape within Ukraine. if we look a little bit further afield, was learned and we look to the European Union. I know one of the things that many analysts and probably Russian advisors themselves were expecting is that the European Union would crumble, wouldn’t maintain its unity in the face of an impending war, whether it was around sanctions or whether it’s around support to affected countries, but thus far the European Union has been generally quite united, there’s certainly been divides around the purchasing and paying of energy supplies in rubles. We’ve seen countries like Serbia sign three year energy deals with Russia in the middle of a middle of a war. countries like Italy and Austria and Hungary, perhaps still keen to take advantage of Russian energy supplies. But what’s your interpretation as an expert based in Ukraine, on European cohesion thus far?

Ruslan Bortnek 12:20

One more interesting question. At the beginning, I don’t believe that Austrian or Hungarian, or Italian or in other countries position inside of Europe union. And they are statement for their acceptation from the general Union force in Ukraine that are their own view, I don’t believe in it. I’m sure that behind the position of Hungary, there is the position of Germany or France, altogether. The position are conservative European elite, which are looking forward for that new cooperation with Russian Federation, which are looking at how to go out from the tension mechanism.

In the situation, such countries in public, they play a very important role, which are not able to play, which don’t want to play big European countries. We understand that Russia was believed that European Union is more destroyed, that it is a in real life, because six blocks of sanctions against Russia is very painful for us. In any case, there are a lot more total distances, but it’s very, very painful for Russia. And Russia believed before it was at war, that the European Union would be able to do anything serious, serious with Russia, with the trade with Russia. And I think it’s one of the biggest Russian mistakes in this war. From another side, of course, from Ukraine side, we have a lot of questions to Europe  union funds, starting from their military supplies to Ukraine, because all these days, we don’t see enough of them. So we have modern peoples from the European countries, except of Great Britain, and Baltic countries, they do all the all they can in this situation. And finishing the European perspectives for Ukraine, because Ukraine is the beginning to state as candidate to Europe union in this June. But there are a lot of voices from European Union, which are talking about it being impossible. We don’t understand why it’s impossible, because the status of candidate for Ukraine will not lead to any expenditures and any responsibilities for Europe. But the European Union is not ready to make these very important political step, symbolic steps which should be should support Ukrainians in morals, more moral than in real life. And so we have a lot of questions to Europe union.

Dominic Bowen 15:15

Thanks for unpacking that. For us. It’s a very interesting insight. And if we look at it even further, if we look at India, the world’s largest democracy, and one of the first countries to actually recognise Ukraine’s independence in 1991. But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India’s national interests have dictated a position of what they’re calling formal neutrality. Now, India has abstained from successive votes in the UN Security Council in the General Assembly and in the Human Rights Council, that have all consistently condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And so far, India has refused to openly call out or to argue against Russia as the instigator of the crisis for many people in this new track. For many people, India’s neutrality has been very disappointing. And some people have even called India’s neutrality, really a pro Moscow position. And this is interesting, because at the same time, India is at the fore, of opposing China’s assertive actions in Asia. What’s your position? And what do you see when you look globally at countries like India who are taking what they’re asserting as a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine?

Ruslan Bortnek 16:25

A few days ago, I have a great a great dialogue with the official speaker of the government party in India, and for more than half an hour we were talking about the position of India. There are a few arguments from Indian why they stay on this position. The first argument, sanction is not effective. It’s ineffective. Absolutely, because they say look at Iraq, Iran, the public look at North Korea, Belarus and many, many other cases. There is no case is when the sanctions change regime, but at the same time, the ordinary people are suffering from sanctions. This is the first argument. The second argument is Kissinger argument. They said “Look, Western sanctions against Russia will push Russia to the unity union with China.” But China is our main competitor, a competitor in our region. We don’t want to take the situation of unity between the Russia and China. The third argument: We are not a very rich country. And but we need a lot of people. More than 17 of Indian people is Russian and or post Soviet.

Now in Russia they’re ready to share their military technology, but European partners are not ready to do it. And so, India is going on to become a world leader of the Non-aligned in countries around the world. And so India is ready to buy all Russian oil which Russia is going to produce. But the question is only the price. We are talking how to find the balance between the Indian and Ukrainian national interest and how to develop cooperation between our countries. There is a lot to do in this.

Dominic Bowen 18:29

That’s very interesting, and a very interesting balancing act being neutral with Russia’s aggression, but being very assertive about China’s aggression within Asia. But alas, it is a very complex situation, as you just said, is managing risk always is. There’s been a lot more conversations about the need to accept peace over victory in Ukraine is two separate separate concepts peace versus victory. And anyone who’s studied international relations, or understands the current Russian leadership will understand that peace, any peace at the moment would only be a temporary pause in between Russian military actions. And thus, really many people are arguing that it has to be victory that is achieved by Ukraine, if we’re to secure long term peace for all of Europe, otherwise, any acceptance by Ukraine have a loss of territory in order to achieve peace will ultimately just lead to a further loss of territory and potential an escalation of the war outside of Europe in the coming years. What do you think about the debate between peace versus victory?

Ruslan Bortnek 19:30

I was looking at this with my eyes because yesterday I was sitting down in my home and I was typing on my laptop and Russian rocket going through my head. And then this rocket destroyed our railway station. And last weekend, my kids you’re waking up in half past 5am because of Russian strikes. And of course in the situation, I know I cannot be neutral to discuss this problem. And I’m involved with the situation as Ukrainian society is under a big pressure and scared. But I think like a political expert, I think this is possible to combine these to attempts should be victory and peace together. We have a lot of models around the world, starting from India, and Palestine and finishes with Hong Kong. I prepared an article on the seven models: how to resolve the problem of Crimea, with a rule to preserve Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty. All is possible if we sit down around the table together. But at the same time, you should understand this war has at least 3 levels. The first level is a global war. It’s a global war, maybe in many, many years historian will say that it was the start of the third world war. Russia says that its short main goal is changing the global architecture, Not the occupation of Ukraine or not defending people or not obtaining some kinds of resources. It’s very common for a regional conflicts, but changing all global architecture, which was built after the Second World War.

At the second level, it’s the historical conflict between very young Ukrainian nation, the youngest nation, I think in Europe maybe now. He supports the historical experience for the future of Slavic people in this region, for the new is the second. And of course, we have the third level of public insight. And this not only for Ukraine, but also for Georgia, Moldova, Russia, many post Soviet countries, this caused the conflict between two big society groups. One big group is so called empires group, the post Soviet Soviet people, which are willing to rebuild the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. And in Ukraine, we have so such people also, which are willing to become more very strange, very big, and very scary for the gold, again, which are looking for commonplace, therefore, not individual plan. The main slogan of this part of society in Ukraine, don’t touch us, we want to leave alone. We want to leave it dependent. We will know how to do what to do we know how to live very good in prosperity and freedom. It’s also internal conflict. And also, when we are looking for them, resolution of this war, we should find the resolution, very common resolution. In all three levels together, all the levels, if you make something only in one level, this war is causing a lot we will not teach.

Dominic Bowen 23:25

Well, we all hope it’s possible and we all hope it’s possible soon. muslin as a political scientist, what do you think the risk landscape and the future of Ukraine actually looks like? If we look at where Ukraine is in one year’s time? Where do you think it will be? What do you think it will look like?

Ruslan Bortnek 23:40

In our centre a few days ago, we modelled it, the future Ukraine, future of this war. We play the game from person to person and from the different sides of the country. And this modelling shows us that war should go to the end of 2024. There is enough resources, there is a political will and the leaders of the main countries don’t see a way to resolve this conflict. So, it should be a very long, long war. Of course, we understand that the food crisis and energy crisis to come in the autumn and winter this year. Of course, we are waiting and looking very attentively at the position of China in the situation because if the China will open the new force on Taiwan, it will mean not only official proclaiming the Third World War, but it also means the new political and military union between China and Russia, and official union between China and Russia. I hope that in the end of 2023 we will come to the some kind of frozen conflict, or maybe we will come to the new architecture of security. We in a triangle between Russia, China and the United States. There are also the big dangerous because of rule of miniature countries, regional leaders like Iran or Turkey, or many other countries, which are also preparing as I see, to resume they are geopolitical problem by military way. Because the Russian example the Ukraine will go up there will do any, any scary about the sanctions and do it’s the example to another class, we better example, extremely good example, what they are able to do and to what they obtain from the Western world. In such a situation

Dominic Bowen 25:35

Ruslin with what we’ve seen in the last few days, announcements by America by Britain, and by the US about the deployment and provision of long range missile systems and Russian counter threats about targeting new areas, and bombing new areas if that is done. This is unlike any other war where we see such overt signals. I mean, you don’t normally see someone in the street fight till the other person, I am going to kick you and then the other person say I am going to punch you but that’s exactly what we’re seeing here. Why do you think that is? Is this is this the over brinksmanship and over diplomacy trying to avert avoid certain escalation? Or is there something else occurring that we’re not able to see?

Ruslan Bortnek 26:20

Without military supplies Ukraine will lose this war. And the situation in Donbass nowadays is very dangerous. Russia is continuing to attempt to capture all this region. And I think the western partners of Ukraine are reacting at the situation in Donbass and trying to grow the resources of Ukraine.

Moreover, the public opinion inside these countries also are asking their leadership to help you bring in more. Zelensky’s team when absolutely win public opinion around the Western world and they do see the situation address into European politicians, some sometimes in very brutal form. But of course our country is under the war, and it’s possible for us to say something bad for German friends or another politician. But we, in general, we saw that very, very fast escalation of military resources. From the Russian side, they use all they had from the first day of war. But from the Ukrainian side, inside of Ukraine, we see how step by step Ukraine obtain more and more heroes people. I think that the Western suppliers, giving supplies and support for Ukraine will depend on the situation on frontline. And if Ukraine lose the situation in the east or south of Ukraine,

the weapon partners will give Ukraine more serious weapon. If they’re up stabilisation on frontline, Ukraine will not obtain this serious weapon. But the same time, very often, Ukraine has a deal with that situation, when the Western government, in public, said that we are going to give Ukraine very serious weapon. And but in fact, Ukraine, we will not accept these weapon before more than many, many months. Ukraine obtained only few examples of these weapon. It’s not enough.

Dominic Bowen 28:28

I think one thing that I fear, and I know many other people fear as well, is that some actors will be pushing. And we touched on this before with the conversation about peace versus victory. But I know Italy proposed a peace plan and the United States to some degree has supported it that there’d be some sort of a pause on the conflict or some sort of a truce, and that Russia retains the territory in the east of Ukraine and the southern part of Ukraine all the way to Mykolaiv and up to Dnipro. But I think for many Ukraine’s this would be unacceptable and would ultimately lead to further conflict in the next couple of years. Do you think there is a likelihood that this Italian peace plan that apparently saving a bit of traction diplomatically, could actually be realised in the next few months?

Ruslan Bortnek 29:20

Unfortunately, I don’t think so. I think the Italian plan is a good starting point for dialogue. But the plan here may very important to geopolitical balances, in an attempt to, to stop the war and to give for Ukraine the perspectives of Europe union integration without entering the NATO and it will cut out the problem of territory, the problem in Donbass and Crimea. There are many goods, possible political dialogue. But as I know, the dialogue is more with Western part. Putin and Western elites are not going to talk among them at all, because there is a deep disappointment between them between Russia elite and Western Elite. Of course, we were thking before that the Italian may be a Russian plan and then we may be thrust into that, because of very good connections between Stalin’s Russia, political and economic connection, now I don’t think so. I think their idea of global conference is very good. But as I know, and I was talking with the one of the consultants over the phone, So what is going on? Of course, we need to do a global conference, with major political states. China, European Union, Russia, United States, Great Britain, maybe maybe something more, somebody more and of course, implement the new rules of this game. Which the new role is United Nations many other international organisation and serious of global security.

Dominic Bowen 31:07

Thank you very much for unpacking that. And thank you very much for joining us on the international risk podcast today. It was one that was really, really interesting to get your insights on what it’s an extremely complex and extremely challenging situation for Ukraine.

Ruslan Bortnek 31:21

Thank you very much peace and prosperity for all the audience.

Dominic Bowen 31:23

For sure, and definitely peace and prosperity for all our friends in Ukraine. Thank you very much. Well, that was a fantastic conversation with Ruslan Bortnek, a friend and colleague based in Kyiv, and currently the head of the Ukrainian Institute of Politics. Thanks very much for listening to the international risk podcast, and please subscribe for future episodes.

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