This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘How Ukraine’s fightback could change the world’

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator, the Financial Times. This week’s podcast is about the war in Ukraine and its consequences. Ukrainian counter-offensive is finally underway, and with the Nato summit taking place in the next few weeks, there are also some big political decisions to be made. My guest is Karin von Hippel. She’s a former senior official at the US State Department who’s now based here in London as the director-general of the Royal United Services Institute. Rusi’s Britain’s oldest defence and security think-tank, founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington. So, with the counter-offensive underway, how will the Ukraine war change the international system?

News clip
Four villages, 5km. That’s what the Ukrainians have taken so far. So this is not shock and awe. This is not blitzkrieg. It is painstaking fighting inch by inch. And our understanding is that there is quite a lot of intense fighting going on and there is a lot of resistance by the Russians.

Gideon Rachman
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin do not agree on much. But over the past week, the Ukrainian and Russian leaders have both confirmed that Ukrainian forces are on the move. In response, Russia seems to have blown up the Kakhovka dam in eastern Ukraine, flooding a large part of the country. That will probably make it harder for Ukraine to advance. It’s also had tragic ecological and humanitarian consequences. Meanwhile, there are big diplomatic moves afoot and Nato’s summit takes place next month. Ukraine wants to see a decisive step forward in its bid for membership. And Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has already made it clear that he thinks Nato should deliver.

Jens Stoltenberg
All allies agree that Nato’s door is open for new members. All allies also agree that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance, and all allies agree that it is for the Nato allies and Ukraine to decide when Ukraine becomes a member. It’s not for Moscow to have a veto against Nato enlargement.

Gideon Rachman
Later in this podcast, we’ll be discussing Ukraine’s Nato prospects. But I started my conversation with Karin von Hippel by looking at the situation on the battlefield. What do we know so far about the progress of the Ukrainian counter-offensive?

Karin von Hippel
So far, we know what the Ukrainians are letting out. They’re controlling information quite tightly. The reporters that are there are embedded with Ukrainian troops. So the information environment is quite difficult. You can watch YouTube and all sorts of postings, whether it’s Ukrainian forces or Russian forces posting things. But at the moment, the gains have been small. The places that they’ve taken over again are mostly destroyed and deserted, but they have made some progress. They’re heading in three directions. They’re going east around Bakhmut towards Luhansk. They’re going south-east into the Donetsk region, and then they’re heading south around Zaporizhzhia region, Russian-occupied areas towards the Sea of Azov.

Gideon Rachman
The Russians have started saying, I think Putin said just recently, this is going very badly for Ukraine. There’s obviously a propaganda battle going on as well. The other thing that is unclear, I don’t know if you can shed any light on it, is whether Ukraine is still doing what they call probing, trying to find weaknesses in Russian lines, and whether they’ve still got stuff they’re holding back. There have been some suggestions that their main forces have yet to be committed.

Karin von Hippel
Yes, I think that is the case. I think the Russians were the most prepared for propaganda, probably more than for this battle. Putin even yesterday made a comment about how their weapons systems are not as advanced. Now, that could be information operations, trying to manage expectations, but it could also be the case. But, yes, it looks like they’re starting out slowly before the bigger events happen in the coming days and weeks.

Gideon Rachman
And on the military front, I mean, just before the offensive took place, it was finally announced that the west would supply fighter planes to Ukraine. But these will not be ready in time for the counter-offensive. Is there a danger that the Russian air force, which has been strangely absent from this battle, could actually be pretty important if the Ukrainians start making gains?

Karin von Hippel
Yes, of course, air power is incredibly important, as we know when you’re trying to mount an operation like this. The Ukrainians have been incredibly savvy with the air defence systems that they have. They’ve been very savvy with drones and upgrading them with all sorts of DIY ways and using all sorts of advanced technology, including artificial intelligence, to compensate for the fact they don’t have that air power yet. They probably won’t have it till later in the year, but it certainly will be part of the Ukrainian military arsenal as this goes on.

Gideon Rachman
I mean, one of the things I think that has kept the inevitable tensions within the western alliance kind of at bay is that the Ukrainians have done much better than expected. So there’s a sense that, broadly speaking, things are going OK. But are there remaining differences in approach within the western alliance, or have they not been resolved by the fact that they finally have been delivered tanks, have been delivered planes?

Karin von Hippel
I think that the Ukrainians and the west are both very aware and Zelenskyy even said this recently, that we need to win because when we show we can win, we get more support. And we’ve seen that as the western support has evolved. I mean, don’t forget, at the start of this conflict, we were making this ridiculous distinction between offensive and defensive weapons. They weren’t going to get all sorts of advanced weapons that they’re now getting. In many ways, the Brits have actually been leading and pushing even more than the United States. And I think the United States is happy with the Brits playing that leadership role. The Germans have supplied advanced tanks, etc.

Gideon Rachman
Just unpack that a bit for me. Why has the US allowed Britain to be a bit more aggressive in what it provides?

Karin von Hippel
I don’t think the US is allowing Britain to do anything. I think that the US is supportive of that because the US has its own domestic concerns about always being upfront. The US doesn’t want to go to war with Russia. And if it looks like it’s the only country pushing very hard, the Russians could interpret that in a certain way. You know, there’s comfort in numbers. And so the more countries that provide this kind of support, the better off it is for the entire alliance and the better it is for Ukraine, too.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. So it is really a case of everyone doing their bit, spreading the risk. But there’s still a debate, plenty of debates to be had, and one about to take place at the Nato summit. When they talk about Ukraine at the Nato summit, what do you expect the big issues to be?

Karin von Hippel
You know, that’s a good question. I think obviously it’ll be about maintaining the alliance but maintaining the weapons flows, even the basic ammunition flows that they need. But then I think they’ll also talk about security guarantees for when this conflict ends, because it is likely to end in some sort of frozen conflict where the lines will be drawn that’s unclear. But if Ukraine doesn’t get some types of security guarantees at that point, then there’s just a risk of Russia rearming and preparing to attack them again.

Gideon Rachman
And Ukrainians have made very clear from the outset and of course, it was, you know, arguably one of the things that triggered the war — their desire to join Nato — they’re still very, very clear on that. Do you think the Americans are yet convinced that that needs to happen?

Karin von Hippel
I think there’s certainly been a change in some people’s view. You’ll hear people like General David Petraeus, retired, of course, making the case very strongly that Ukraine should join Nato. The US will have to provide security guarantees, as I said, because they’ve already committed so much to support Ukraine. They’re committed to defending the principle that you don’t alter borders by force. And so we’ve seen that in this case that the US will try to push Russia back. There was a concern even at the start of this war that if Russia succeeds, then Moldova might be next. And even parts of the former Soviet Union, whether that’s in the Baltics or elsewhere would be on that list.

Gideon Rachman
What about the case that I saw here in Washington? There does seem to be reluctance among some people in the government to extend Nato Article 5, security guarantees to Ukraine. The argument being there’s too much of a risk that a war will start and that we’ll be dragged into it. Do you still hear that argument?

Karin von Hippel
I haven’t heard that recently, but that would be the reason why full Nato membership right now may not be on the cards. I suspect what might happen at the end of this conflict, assuming it ends in the near future or in the next year or two, is EU membership. So fast track for EU membership, which will help for a number of reasons that we can discuss, and then some sort of Nato arrangement. There may not be an arrangement in Nato’s menu right now, but it doesn’t mean they can’t create something that is unique to Ukraine.

Gideon Rachman
But why couldn’t they do it very quickly? Because, you know, again, one of the arguments is that this ambiguity is kind of worse than anything, and that that was partly what triggered the war.

Karin von Hippel
The argument against full Nato membership right now would be where would you draw the borders? Would Crimea be included? It’s unlikely in this counter-offensive that Ukraine will win back Crimea. They still claim Crimea. Obviously, Crimea is in the state of Ukraine as recognised in 1991 at the United Nations. So that would be really the issue is can you say, well, we will defend all of Ukraine but Crimea? There will be some questions about that.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Again, talking to some American officials admittedly a few weeks back, but one of them said to me, maybe we’re being too unimaginative about security guarantees. We’re thinking about it Nato or not Nato. There are other ways of doing these things. And he pointed to Israel as an example, which again, I think has appeared in the press as well. And I think what he meant by that was that the US doesn’t have a formal security guarantee that they will fight if Israel is attacked and Israel has been attacked and America hasn’t come to its aid. But what America has done is supply Israel with the most advanced weaponry so that Israel can kind of build itself up. And again, you’ve also sometimes heard the Ukrainians talk about Israel as an example, a country that’s, you know, a formidable military force that you wouldn’t attack. Is that a way of doing it?

Karin von Hippel
I think, certainly they can come to some bespoke arrangements, whether it’s an Israel model or Taiwan, which is strategic ambiguity, the US likely to come to the aid of Taiwan. Biden has said he would several times, but then that’s been dialled back by his staff. But I think that the concern I would have if it’s a US Ukraine-only security guarantee is if someone like Donald Trump comes in or even Ron DeSantis, they may say, no, we’re not doing this anymore. And that’s why it needs to be wider. It needs to be some sort of Nato-type arrangement. Maybe not all Nato countries; could be EU-plus, it could be a transatlantic arrangement, but it shouldn’t just be the United States.

Gideon Rachman
And it should be, given, as you say, the Trump concern, probably embedded in a treaty, rather than having it as an understanding which can be ripped up.

Karin von Hippel
Well, a treaty could be ripped up too. A treaty would have to go to the US Senate, and then it’s not clear that they would get the votes on that. So I’m not even sure a treaty would help. I think it’s more again about spreading the risk. So it’s not just the United States. It would be the UK, it would be the major powers that have been supporting Ukraine so far. And hopefully also Nato. It would be good to have it embedded somehow in a Nato bespoke security-guaranteed arrangement. There are a lot of organisations or research institutes working with Ukrainians right now to think through what that might mean. And so I know that there are lots of plans out there. The question is, you know, what will be the result of it?

Gideon Rachman
Do you think we’re getting closer to a credible plan, something that people can unite around?

Karin von Hippe
I suspect we are, yeah. There are a number of groups that I’ve spoken to that are working directly with Zelenskyy’s office, at least two or three. So they’re probably looking at, you know, a menu. And I’m sure people inside Nato are thinking through options. I’m sure people in the US government are thinking through options. But, you know, the Ukrainians need to be happy with whatever arrangements are made.

Gideon Rachman
It’s interesting that they’re working directly with Zelenskyy’s office because, of course, there’s the rhetorical political level and then there’s the practical level. And the rhetorical level is still, give us Nato. That’s what we need. There are no alternatives. But you’re suggesting that behind the scenes they are having to think about more bespoke arrangements?

Karin von Hippel
Yeah. I think they’re just being practical. I mean, the Ukrainians have been incredibly impressive in terms of the way they’ve integrated all sorts of international assistance, whether it’s weapons systems. As we know, there’s often, you know, a patchwork of air defence systems that they’ve been using and they’ve managed those really well. They’ve managed tech assistance from all over the place, whether it’s companies like Palantir, as we know, or just private citizens who’ve been offering support, these citizens’ armies that have been helping out the Ukrainians; whether it’s humanitarian aid, they’ve been very adept at managing streams coming from many different countries, many different types of systems. So I think that they’re just considering a lot of options and they’re working with a lot of different organisations.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, they have certainly transformed their image in the most extraordinary way. I mean I was as guilty as others of thinking, yeah, you know, basically pretty corrupt country, dysfunctional. In fact, the government has been really impressive.

Karin von Hippel
Yeah, there’s nothing like a war to bring out innovation and nationalism, right, amongst countries. Now, I think we also probably didn’t expect that to happen after what we saw in Afghanistan, which was, you know, not that far back before this conflict. Everyone was watching that where they didn’t fight.

Gideon Rachman
And where you have a 20-year effort of nation-building that just collapses.

Karin von Hippel
Right. Whereas Ukraine is in many ways the Russian invasion created a country. The country existed before, obviously, but it really transformed the country. And then the challenge will be for the Ukrainians how to maintain that innovation and that unity and the creativity and the fact that they have not been as corrupt, right? They’ve been making sure that they’re using the systems properly, that if there is corruption, it’s rooted out publicly. How do they maintain that afterwards? How do they not fall back into previous patterns? And I think one of the best ways to do that is EU membership, because actually, whatever you think of the EU, conditionality to get into the EU is one of the best ways to help a country transform, whether it’s about human rights or financial integrity.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. I mean, we’ll get on to the EU just in a sec. But one thing, listen to the both of us talk in a way is I wonder also what there’s an opposite danger that we tell ourselves a story about the Ukrainians because they have been so impressive and people want them to win and so on, and that you slightly gloss over remaining problems because of course there are immensely impressive things happening but . . . 

Karin von Hippel
Right. I mean, I think still today, 30 per cent of the budget is paid for by the west. So, yeah, there’s a number of challenges, but I think they’re aware of that. And that’s what’s most impressive to me when I talk to Ukrainians is how they are aware that the best time to make substantive changes, transformational changes in your country is in a crisis, and that’s now. It’s easier to push changes on bureaucracies, you know, to jettison out the Soviet infrastructure that they had and welcome in something much more nimble and innovative. It doesn’t need to be a western model. I mean, what I worry about more is that in the postwar period, even if it’s some sort of frozen conflict or there isn’t a clear-cut peace agreement, I worry about all sorts of people coming in and kind of overwhelming the system and them not being able to manage it. They need to stay in the lead position for all of this. They need to tell people what they want, they need to co-ordinate it, you know, and it’s hard sometimes for countries to do that when overwhelming numbers of people and money and all that is coming in.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. I mean, I suppose the assumption of a lot of what we’re saying is they may not want a complete victory, but they’re gonna come out of this ahead in the sense that the idea of Russia subordinating them is now totally off the table and that there will be a Ukraine to rebuild. We can say that safely now.

Karin von Hippel
Yeah, I think so. And I think we can even say in many ways, Ukraine already has won this war because they’ve shown Russia to be much weaker than everyone thought. I mean, I heard an American congressman say recently, before the war, we thought Russia had the second-strongest military in the world. And now we see it has the second-strongest military in Ukraine.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Pretty devastating for them. Now, coming to the EU bit, when I was in Kyiv a little while back, the same office was handling the Nato membership and the EU membership. And I think they talked of it as a package of Euro-Atlantic integration. EU membership is also not a rapid process. It can take 10, 15 years. People are talking about 2030. Do you think that’s realistic?

Karin von Hippel
Yeah, I don’t know. I think anything is possible, right? They can fast-track it if they want to. They can put them on some sort of arrangements that already their systems are being transformed. So that’s really what it’s about more, is ensuring that the internal governance processes in Ukraine are transformed enough so that they can demonstrate that they’re not gonna be corrupt, that they’re gonna respect the rule of law, etc, all those issues. I think the reason that there’s probably one-off is doing Ukraine and Nato is they’re pushed for people. I mean, all the men, most of the men of a certain age are fighting. There are a lot of women now who are taking very senior positions. And if you listen to those women, you know, they’re pretty impressive. And I think you’ve seen some of them at conferences like I have, credible, impressive. They’re out there in full force, they’re on message. They’re really also transforming the way people think about Ukraine as well. And I think that’s another change that often happens in war. Ukraine has been traditional in many ways in terms of, you know, the roles of women in society, which is what you hear from Ukrainians. I think that will also change in the post period as well.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Although one thing that I know that Ukrainians are also worrying about the postwar period is that you get a lot of people with physical and mental problems.

Karin von Hippel
Yeah, enormous challenges. No, this is not to underestimate the challenges. I mean, there are going to be landmines everywhere. The reconstruction is going to be quite extraordinary. But I think this is not a developing country where, you know, the majority of people are illiterate, right? This is an advanced society; as we’ve seen they’ve incredibly savvy with technology. We’ve heard tech experts say that if you look at the world now, the United States is first, Israel second, and many people think Ukraine is already third because of the advances that they’ve made in terms of the innovation, the way that they’ve used technology. They have a very young digital minister and he’s the one who’s really helped transform the way they’ve used drone technology and others to integrate, whether it’s civilians sending up pictures or using AI, etc. So, you know, they have transformed in a number of ways and that transformation will be important in the post-conflict period, because whether it’s selling their technology for civilian or military use or just making internal changes with that technology.

Gideon Rachman
That’s an extraordinary stat, if true, that Ukraine is the third technological power in the world. Was that simply because there was a tech base there that we didn’t . . . 

Karin von Hippel
I think it’s more advances in the use of technology. They don’t have the base, you know, the industrial base, but they certainly could use their new expertise to really help transform their society.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And I suppose that also slightly changes the picture of Ukrainian membership at the EU, because I think a lot of the EU are thinking, another burden for us. You know, this is a big, poor country, a war-traumatised country. It’ll blow up the Common Agricultural Policy, all these other concerns. But there could of course be an enormous plus for the EU if Ukraine joins.

Karin von Hippel
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think the EU also needs to make transformation and unfortunately they won’t make the fundamental changes that they need to make that the Ukrainians are making because they’re not in an existential crisis. But that’s probably a different podcast.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, but there has also long been an aspiration expressed by Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, for there to be a geopolitical Europe, for this to be a geopolitical commission. It seems to me you couldn’t think of a bolder geopolitical move than incorporating Ukraine. At that point, if the EU stretches from Lisbon into the middle of Eurasia, it’s a real player. I mean, not that it isn’t already, but it would be a very striking transformation in the EU’s geopolitical position.

Karin von Hippel
Yeah. I mean, that’s the case. You know, I think it would be even more striking if it was able to integrate Turkey. But obviously that’s not going to happen in the immediate future either.

Gideon Rachman
No, particularly post-Erdoğan. But behind that, however, is how do you stabilise relations with Russia? Does anyone yet have a picture of that?

Karin von Hippel
This is the challenge. And I think as long as Putin is in power, it’s going to be incredibly complicated. I don’t see how any western leader can shake Putin’s hand. He’s already been indicted as a war criminal. He’s done so much damage to civilian infrastructure. He’s violated so many laws of war that none of our leaders in the west can ever shake his hand. We saw that with Assad, though, right, after the Syria war, and now he’s slowly being reintegrated into the fold. It doesn’t mean all countries support that, but that is going to be a challenge going forward. And I don’t know how long, you know, western sanctions will stay on Russia. I think they would have to stay on Russia for years until there’s some sort of change or until Putin leaves. So that is going to be an incredible complicating factor is a Russia that still has Putin in power and is governed in the way that it’s governed for the next many years.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And the Assad parallel’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because the rehabilitation is not by the west; it’s by the rest of the Middle East.

Karin von Hippel
And not all of the Middle East. There are some countries like Qatar that are not supportive of that.

Gideon Rachman
But it does raise this question that I know you’ve been thinking about a lot, which is the growing gap in perceptions between the west on the one hand and the global south.

Karin von Hippel
Yeah, that’s something that, you know, certainly surprised me after the war started, the Ukraine war, as it really laid bare the chasm, really. You know, you have the Russia-China alliance on the one side, you have the west on the other, and then you have the vast majority of the world’s countries that I think the United States and the UK and other western countries thought were generally on their side. Now, in the first resolution at the UN General Assembly right after the war in March that condemned Russian aggression, you had something like 141 countries supported, but 35 abstained. This year, 32 abstained in the February vote. And those countries are not just saying, we don’t want to choose — because they are saying that — but many, surprisingly, are leaning more towards the Russia-China position than us. And I think that’s what really surprised many western countries in the months after the war started, that we just sort of assumed they’d be more on our side. And, you know, you watch them making the case that this is an imperial war by the west, trying to bring Ukraine into Nato. They’re basically parroting Russian arguments in many of these countries, whether it’s in Africa or elsewhere.

So it’s the developing countries that are most impacted by this war, whether because of food security or economic challenges, inflation or energy challenges, they’re the ones that are actually more often than not supporting the Russian-Chinese position. Now, often places like Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Angola, there’s a longstanding affiliation because, of course, during the cold war, Russia was a good friend to those countries and there’s still fond memories and feelings of partnership. Ukrainian response to that is, well, that’s a different country; that they’re pretending like they’re the former Soviet Union, but it’s a different country. So there’s been this chasm for some time.

But then there are countries that are wealthier, as you say, like in the Gulf, and they’re still choosing to play both sides. Saudi Arabia recently promised $400mn in aid, but yet is making deals with Russia on energy security. And I think the Ukrainians as well have been late to the game. Now, they’ve been late to the game because they’ve been so focused on getting military support, economic support, understandably. But they are now realising, and you know, the foreign minister and others have been out travelling much more in Africa and elsewhere trying to make the case. I think that’s the right thing to do. I don’t think having President Macron or Tony Blinken or the, you know, British foreign minister making the case that the west is not imperialist or colonialist is the right approach. I think it needs to be former Soviet countries that know very well what Russian imperialism is.

Gideon Rachman
So just to finish, in a way, it can seem a little bit premature to be discussing all of this stuff while brutal fighting is taking place in eastern Ukraine, village by village. But I think it’s also true, isn’t it, that often international architectures are decided during wartime by decisions that are made under enormous pressure that may seem temporary at the time and then settle down. So do you think that this Ukraine war is gonna be, if you like, an architectural moment for the world order, that things are gonna be really fundamentally pretty different afterwards?

Karin von Hippel
They already are different now. And I do think it’s important, actually, to discuss this even in the middle of conflict, because the decisions made about the compacts basically will help Ukraine be a secure country afterwards. And they can’t even come to the negotiating table until they decide some of these fundamentals. And so I think it’s important that the west hash out what it is capable of doing and what it’s willing to do now, because that will help when they’re ready to sit down at the table.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
That was Karin von Hippel, director-general of the Royal United Services Institute here in London. Thanks for listening. Please join me again next week.

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