WORLD: Mr. Rodnyansky, the siege of the Azov steelworks seems to be coming to an end. It has become an international symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russian occupation. What do these developments mean for the further course of the war?
Alexander Rodnyansky: From a military-tactical point of view, these developments will hardly affect the course of the war. However, the Russians are attempting to claim the evacuation as a decisive victory. Our fighters from the Azov regiment are now at risk of further humiliation in Russian captivity. We will do everything to free them as soon as possible. Ukraine is committed to the life of every single soldier to the last, in contrast to the Russian side.
WORLD: In the course of the ongoing war, President Putin is weakening. May 9, symbolic for the Russians, was a dreaded date for Ukraine. But Putin’s speech did not include the dreaded announcement of a major offensive, and the air show was canceled. Has the war turned?
Rodnyansky: Putin’s performance is definitely a sign of weakness, but Russia is far from defeated. There are clear problems in the logistics of the war machine. A lot is going wrong at the moment. The parade on May 9th confirmed this, mainly due to the lack of an air force. Russia is in a crisis, but they are far from defeated.
WORLD: Putin withdrew militarily from the north and center of Ukraine in order to concentrate on the already contested east. However, he can hardly claim any territorial successes there. What options are left for him to make progress?
Rodnyansky: While Russian troops lack the combat readiness and morale to advance efficiently, they pose several threats. Putin can further escalate the conflict inside Ukraine, and that can involve the use of all sorts of weapons.
WORLD: Also nuclear weapons?
Rodnyansky: We don’t see any nuclear danger. Russia cannot afford to attack the West while they cannot make any headway in Ukraine. In addition, Putin has no chance against NATO, the strongest military in the world.
WORLD: What options does Putin have to escalate the war?
Rodnyansky: Russian ammunition and troops are on combat readiness in both Belarus and Transnistria. There is great potential to escalate there and attack Ukraine from the northwest or southeast. These two fronts could become relevant and decisive for the war. Russia wants to intervene in the West to cut off Ukraine from the EU and the routes of arms and aid coming. Since the beginning of the war, there have been repeated provocations from Transnistria, and Russia has long openly confirmed that they want to establish a land bridge to the north of Moldova. We are monitoring developments and preparing for such scenarios.
WORLD: Putin’s greatest weapon has always been his unpredictability. Are Russia’s military difficulties now curbing its unpredictability?
Rodnyansky: The West had a wrong idea of Putin, for a long time he was unpredictable. The war revealed Putin’s true face to the world. Within his logic and his worldview, Putin acts rationally: he does everything to restore the Russian Empire. Many Ukrainians were not surprised by his imperial ambitions.
WORLD: Putin’s goal is clear, but there were no successes. A kind of standoff between Ukraine and Russia is looming. What options does Ukraine see for entering into peace negotiations – back to the pre-February 24 external borders, giving up the eastern Ukrainian autonomous regions of the DNR and LNR?
Rodnyansky: We are interested in peace, but we are not ready to give up territories. We have internationally recognized borders. These must be protected in order to maintain our territorial integrity – this also includes Crimea, which has been occupied since the 2014 conflict. Russia has never had a serious interest in peace. They are concerned with the military conquest of Ukraine and the destruction of the Ukrainian state. For Putin, Ukraine does not exist. It is not possible to come to a stable and peaceful solution with this regime.
WORLD: So a territorial compromise would not be an option to end the war?
Rodnyansky: Ukraine isn’t ready to give up areas. This is not a government decision alone. It’s a people’s decision. And that has to be respected in a democratic country like Ukraine. We cannot leave the people in the occupied territories alone and they don’t want to either. We see what the Russians are doing to the Ukrainians – they are being murdered, tortured, abducted. For that reason alone, it’s not an option.
WORLD: You say that Ukraine does not exist for Putin. What are the chances of making peace with someone like that?
Rodnyansky: There can be no peace under Putin. Because the origin of this conflict is the nature of the Russian regime. It is impossible for Putin to accept and respect Ukraine as a democratic state. The democratic and economically stable developing Ukraine poses a threat to his autocratic regime.
WORLD: So the Putin regime must be ended in order to be able to end the war?
Rodnyansky: There is a good chance that Ukraine will win this war and thus help bring about change in Russia. These two goals are inseparable: on the one hand, Ukraine’s victory in this war and, on the other hand, change within Russia. Putin’s approval among the Russian population is still high. But Russia is under massive pressure because the economy is in a deep crisis. It is possible that there will be either turmoil within the elites or an uprising by civil society. That’s difficult to predict. It is clear that the sanctions and the losses of the war are throwing Putin’s political system into imbalance.
WORLD: Ukraine’s resistance is enormous, but NATO’s support is also increasing. To what extent is the West’s support for Ukraine related to the weakening of Putin – supplying heavy weapons, imposing tough sanctions?
Rodnyansky: Both the sanctions and the supply of heavy weapons are crucial. Ukraine can defend itself against Russia, with its own weapons, but also with military support from the West. However, we have no tools to cut off the money supply to Russian war machines. This requires sanctions from the West. Because Putin finances the war through the Russian budget and this is based to about 55 percent on the export of raw materials. Tough sanctions are critical to stopping war funding. That is why we are working with the EU on an oil embargo. Germany’s dependence on Russian gas has fallen from 55 to 35 percent and on Russian oil from 35 to 12 percent within two months. This is an important step in stopping the financing of the war. The goal must be to stop sourcing energy from Russia as soon as possible.
WORLD: What about the arms deliveries, do you feel just as much determination as with the sanctions?
Rodnyansky: Germany is lagging behind in terms of equipment and armament. Sometimes it is difficult for us to understand why the decisions are not made faster. But change is happening, even if it’s too slow for Ukraine. If you compare the starting position of German politics with the current status quo, Germany has made an enormous change within the last two and a half months. In relative terms, however, this cannot be compared with what the USA, Great Britain or Poland are supplying in terms of military resources. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people die in Ukraine every day. Every minute that a decision takes longer is actually already too late.
Alexander Rodnyansky Jr. is one of the closest advisors to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Rodnyansky was born in Kyiv and lived in Düsseldorf for ten years before graduating from high school. He received his doctorate in economics from Princeton, after which he became an assistant professor at Cambridge, where he is currently on leave. He is currently in Kyiv.