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Anne de Tinguy: "The Kremlin has seriously underestimated the Ukrainians' ability to resist".

For the historian and political scientist, the war in Ukraine already signals for Russia "the end of an empire and a geopolitical reorientation". In the wake of Vladimir Putin's re-election, she develops several possible scenarios for the outcome of this conflict. Interview.

Anne de Tinguy is Professor Emeritus at INALCO and researcher at the CERI at Sciences Po, and a former auditor at the IHEDN (42th session), author of "Le géant empêtré. Russia and the world from the end of the USSR to the invasion of Ukraine" (published by Perrin, September 2022). This interview looks at the latest edition of "Regards sur l'Eurasie".CERI's annual online publication, for which she is responsible.

THE OUTCOME OF THE WAR IN UKRAINE "IS NOT YET CLEAR", YOU WRITE. CAN WE STILL ENVISAGE DIFFERENT SCENARIOS?

The scenarios that can be drawn up are marked by the durability of the conflict and the resulting rise in tensions.

The first would be a cessation of hostilities following a decision by the Kremlin to put an end to the all-out war it has unleashed and to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory. With Vladimir Putin showing no sign of committing himself to this course of action or of negotiating (cf. his statements on 14 and 19 December and 9 and 29 February, among others), and with no State or institution appearing capable of persuading him to take such a decision, this outcome currently appears totally illusory.

The second scenario would be for Ukraine to reclaim the territories occupied by Russia and return to the 1991 borders. In the eyes of Ukrainian officials and most Western leaders, this would be the best way, if not the only way, of restoring lasting peace and ensuring Europe's security. In the short term, given the current state of the Ukrainian forces and the equipment at their disposal, this path is not realistic, as confirmed by the failure of the counter-offensive launched by Kiev this summer.

The third scenario would be a Ukrainian defeat resulting either from a cessation of hostilities under conditions that would allow Russia to keep the 17 % of Ukrainian territory that its forces occupy and that it annexed in 2014 and 2022; or from an exhaustion of Ukraine's material and human resources, which would force the Ukrainian authorities to capitulate. This scenario, which would be tragic for Ukraine and would have far-reaching consequences for European security, seemed unlikely until recently, at least in the short term: on the one hand because of the inability of the Russian forces to achieve decisive victories over the last few months, and on the other because of the determination and resistance of the Ukrainians, which remain extremely strong. But if the US Congress does not vote within a reasonable timeframe to continue aid to Ukraine, if Donald Trump is re-elected President in November and if he implements the Ukrainian policy he announced during the election campaign, the risk of such a scenario becoming a reality seems very real.

"WE NEED A MUCH GREATER COMMITMENT FROM THE WEST".

The fourth scenario is one of "neither victory nor peace" (to use Colonel Michel Goya's expression): with neither side able to significantly alter the balance of power, this would mean "a permanent state of war" that could last for many years. The current situation bears a striking resemblance to this.

To prevent the third scenario and emerge from the fourth, we need a much greater commitment from the West than we have at present. This is the sense of the "European leap forward" that President Macron and most of his European counterparts are calling for. This leap forward would be linked to the perception of a crescendoing Russian threat, to the refusal of the US Congress to continue its commitment to Ukraine, and to a desire to prepare for the consequences of the re-election of Donald Trump.

UKRAINE, BUT ALSO MOLDAVIA, ARMENIA AND GEORGIA, ARE CONSOLIDATING THEIR FOOTHOLD IN THE WEST. DIDN'T THE RUSSIANS ANTICIPATE SUCH REACTIONS WHEN THEY INVADED UKRAINE IN 2022?

Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia and, to a lesser extent, Armenia are consolidating their anchorage in the West, an already long-standing anchorage that was accelerated by Russian aggression in Ukraine. The first three now have EU candidate status, and Brussels has voted to launch accession negotiations with the first two. Armenia, which was pressured by Russia in 2013 not to sign an association agreement with the EU, is not there yet. But the shock of what it considers to be Russia's betrayal in the Nagorno-Karabakh affair has led it to give fresh impetus to its links with the EU, particularly with France.

For centuries, one of the hallmarks of Russia's neo-imperial policy has been the establishment of asymmetrical relations. It has resulted in a refusal to recognise the full sovereignty of these states, and of Ukraine in particular - Ukraine's sovereignty, according to Vladimir Putin, is only possible within the framework of a partnership with Russia - and to accept that they can make internal and external choices that would distance them from Russia and its zone of influence.

RUSSIAN POLICY "BASED ON NUMEROUS ERRORS OF JUDGEMENT

This policy was based on numerous errors of judgement. The multifaceted ties that have united Russians and Ukrainians for centuries should have translated into a keen understanding of Ukrainians. This has not been the case. Locked in an imaginary world nourished by historiography and convinced of their superiority, the Russians were unable to gauge the strength of the Ukrainians' desire for independence.

In 2022, betting on a rapid collapse of the Ukrainian army and government, the Kremlin seriously underestimated the Ukrainians' capacity for resistance. It did not imagine that the Russian forces would be confronted by an armed nation determined to defend its territory and its independence. Nor did it realise that by massively invading Ukraine after annexing Crimea, it would strengthen Ukrainian national sentiment and hasten its integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. Despite warnings to the contrary, he also failed to anticipate that his decision would mobilise Western states to support Ukraine over the long term, strengthening European unity and transatlantic ties.

YOU SAY THAT "IT IS FORESEEABLE THAT RUSSIA WILL NOT EMERGE UNSCATHED FROM THE WAR OF AGGRESSION IT HAS UNLEASHED": TO WHAT EXTENT? COULD PRESIDENT PUTIN, WHO WAS RE-ELECTED YESTERDAY, ALSO SUFFER AS A RESULT?

After 24 years in power, Vladimir Putin was re-elected yesterday for a further six years, until 2030. Will he see his new term of office through to the end? No one knows when that will be and what the post-Putin era will be like. What is already foreseeable, however, is that Russia will not emerge unscathed from the all-out war it is waging against Ukraine. In the event of a military defeat that the Putin regime would probably not survive, some are not ruling out the scenario of civil war, or even the break-up of the Federation.

Whatever the outcome of the conflict, this conflagration opens a new chapter in its history. In particular, it marks the end of an empire and a geopolitical reorientation, synonymous with identity upheavals. The mental map held by Russia's ruling elites is dominated by the conviction that their country is a great power and that the sphere of influence that is the post-Soviet space is its foundation. Today, Russia has lost Ukraine, which for centuries was the jewel in the crown of its empire. It must mourn the loss of "Little Russia", the name given to Ukraine during the Tsarist period, and give up thinking of itself as an empire. This upheaval means that a painful rebuilding of identity is needed.

"RUSSIA DISCONNECTS FROM EUROPE AND TURNS TO ASIA

The question of identity is also at the heart of Russia's historic break with its traditional partners, the European states, and its pivot towards China and Asia. Today, Russia, a Eurasian country that has long been largely oriented towards Europe, is disconnecting from Europe and turning towards Asia. Its partnership with China has enabled it to limit its isolation on the international stage and the effects of Western sanctions. But Chinese support comes at a cost: it makes the country much more dependent on Beijing.

Its economic development threatens to deal a further blow to its ambitions for power. For centuries, Russia has thought of itself as a great power. However, it has never given priority to the development of the country, which would have enabled it to catch up with Western Europe and North America, and now with China. The Russian economy withstood the shock of the war better than expected.

But as many economists have pointed out, the medium and long-term prospects in this area are poor. The aggression in Ukraine, the war economy that has been put in place (to the detriment of sectors such as health and education) and Western sanctions are holding back the investment that Russia needs to modernise its infrastructure and diversify its economy (which remains a cash economy), restricting its access to cutting-edge technologies and leading to a deterioration in the international integration of its economy.  

In this context, in the words of economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, its economy "has no chance of developing in the coming years". What's more, its development is bound to be affected by the country's severe demographic and environmental pressures.