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Professor Gerhard Mangott gave iGlobenews an exclusive interview to discuss the current Russia-Ukraine war, the possibility of a nuclear escalation, global implications of US/EU sanctions, NATO, and what goals President Putin is pursuing. Could neutrality be the solution for a lasting peace?

Diana Mautner Markhof, 17 March 2022

On 16 March, Professor Gerhard Mangott gave iGlobenews an exclusive interview on the current situation in Ukraine. Professor Mangott is an internationally renowned scholar and expert on Russia, Ukraine, arms control, proliferation, as well as the European Union’s energy security in the oil and gas sectors.

iGlobenews: The fighting in Ukraine is entering its third week. Russia and Ukraine are set to continue their talks. Up to now each side was not willing to give an inch. Today FM Lavrov indicated that there might be room for negotiations. The same signal has come from Ukraine. President Zelenski has indicated that Ukraine will not join NATO. The positions of each side might be in the process of softening. Previously, Russia had insisted on the de-militarization of Ukraine, the recognition of Crimea and Donbass as independent and a neutral Ukraine. Ukraine on the other hand has demanded the complete withdrawal of all Russian troops and an end to the Russian military operation.

 You have mentioned previously that if Ukraine does not politically capitulate, Russia will continue its operation until the complete military capitulation of Ukraine. In your opinion, can this conflict be ended and, if so, is the solution to this crisis between Russia and Ukraine a neutral Ukraine? Are both sides becoming more flexible?

Professor Mangott: They had positive statements by Lavrov and the Ukrainian side yesterday and today [15 and 16 March], but on the other hand, Vladimir Putin himself said that Ukraine is not negotiating seriously. So we have some contradicting information from the Russian side and it is difficult to say what is really negotiated between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations. You have indicated the Russian demands, you have indicated the Ukrainian demands: these demands are very far apart from each other. The convergence on a compromise solution does not look very likely.

I do not think that Russia is now in a position where it wants to compromise on its demands – maybe on the issue of Crimea. Maybe Russia will not ask or demand that Ukraine recognize Crimea and Sevastopol as part of Russia. Because this would not alter very much from the Russian side. The western countries would still not recognize that Crimea is part of Russia. But on the other two issues, the neutrality of Ukraine in a demilitarized manner and the recognition of the separatist republics in the Donbass are non-negotiable for Russia. If it were to negotiate, the question would be asked what was the decision to go to war good for? What has Russia actually achieved by waging a war of aggression?

The problem from the Ukrainian side is if Zelenski is going to accept neutrality as the new security status of Ukraine. He is still demanding security guarantees for such a new status. Of course he is not speaking of security guarantees from the Russian Federation – we know they are not worth the paper they are written on – he will ask for security guarantees from western countries, particularly the US, UK, France and Germany. While in a sense this is an easy task to achieve, but it is not. If he really insists on strong security guarantees by these countries for Ukraine’s political independence and territorial integrity, this would mean that he would ask for an Article 5 NATO collective defense commitment through the backdoor. He would actually get what he would have gotten as a member of the NATO alliance and I am not sure western countries are willing to make such a commitment, or if they do, would live up to this commitment, in case of a new attack on Ukraine.

Finally, if Zelenski accepts neutrality, it is not sure whether he will implement this decision in Ukraine – whether he will get majority support by the political elite of the country. He could endanger his position as President if he goes too far in compromising with the Russian side.

iGlobenews: Many western European countries who have been neutral for long time, including Austria, have close connections to NATO, such as NATO Partnerships. Is this something Russia in your opinion would definitely accept or not accept in case Ukraine would become a neutral country?

Professor Mangott: No, definitely not. Any cooperation with NATO, military cooperation in terms of training, advice, weaponry and joint military exercises would be unacceptable for the Russian side. If they accept this even after this war, they will not have gained very much by waging this war. A neutral state means that the sovereignty of Ukraine is limited, its foreign policy role is limited. Ukraine will be obliged to have a benevolent foreign policy towards Russia. Any cooperation with NATO will be off the table if the Russians prevail with their demands. What the Russian side is currently trying to achieve is the political capitulation of the Ukrainian government. If they do not achieve that, meaning that Zelenski will not accept the demands that Russia has currently put on the table, the war will go on. It will be brutalized with more attacks on the civilian infrastructure with the objective to achieve the military capitulation of the Ukrainian military and government.

iGlobenews: In 1998 George Kennan remarked that NATO’s eastward expansion is “a tragic mistake”. Yet NATO continued to expand to the borders of Russia. Russia has continuously referred to the principle of the indivisibility of security and how the US/NATO has not taken Russia’s security interests into account. If the US/NATO had taken these security interests of the Russian Federation more seriously, could this war in Ukraine have been avoided? With the wisdom of hindsight why did diplomacy regarding the Russia Ukraine crisis fail? 

Professor Mangott: Actually, the promise of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia made at the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April 2008 was a terrible mistake. This definitely crossed the red lines defined by Vladimir Putin already in 2007 when he addressed the Munich Security Conference. Of course, since then Ukraine had no option to join NATO. It does not even have a membership action plan which would lead to NATO membership. A NATO invitation for Ukraine to join was not on the table as some countries in the European Union, particularly France and Germany, are opposed to Ukraine NATO membership. So actually, the threat of Ukrainian NATO membership is not currently on the agenda or for the foreseeable future.

Why did Russia bring up this issue? Russia or the Putin leadership has redefined its red line over Ukraine in the Fall of 2021. Previously, the red line was no membership of Ukraine in NATO. The newly defined red line is no military cooperation between NATO and Ukraine, which has intensified considerably over the past years.

Whether negotiations could have prevented the war is difficult to say. But I do argue, that probably the West was not flexible, not creative enough in the negotiations with the Russian side in late December 2021 and January and early February of this year. What I am criticizing the West about is not trying to find out if a negotiated neutral status for Ukraine would be sufficient for Russia and could have prevented this war of aggression. Because, as I argue, the US government was very sure that Putin will launch this war – they were expecting this war – and at the same time the US and NATO countries stated that they would not support Ukraine militarily in the sense that NATO would send its own soldiers to Ukraine to help them fight against the Russian invaders. And thirdly, almost every military expert said Ukraine will ultimately lose this war. So in the past weeks and months it was clear that Ukraine would become the victim of Russian aggression–everybody expected that.

At the same time, NATO defended the freedom of choice which alliance countries may join and it defended its principle of the Open Door, which means that every country which fulfills its criteria can join. It was clear, NATO would not accept Ukraine as a member for the next 10 to 15 years. The West decided to defend an abstract principle, the Open Door Policy, and the freedom of alliance while they were expecting Ukraine to become a victim. All the while the West was talking openly about the fact that they would not support Ukraine (militarily) and are not thinking about accepting Ukraine as a member.

“So we could have tried, we should have tried – there is no guarantee that this would have prevented the war, but we did not even try.”I have argued that during negotiations the West should have talked with the Russian side about the neutral status of Ukraine, which of course at that time Ukraine completely rejected. But maybe the neutral status of Ukraine would have had to be imposed on Ukraine. It is not sure that Putin would have accepted this, would have been satisfied with this. We do not know. Maybe from the very start he had planned this war of aggression. Had the western side talked with the Russian side openly about a neutral status we now would know if that compromise would have satisfied the Russian side or, if Russia in any case would have targeted Ukraine. Russian aggression is not only about the status of Ukraine as a potential NATO member, but is part of a historical revisionist policy of Vladimir Putin and his supporters to bring Ukraine back into the orbit of the Russian Federation.

So we could have tried, we should have tried – there is no guarantee that this would have prevented the war, but we did not even try.

iGlobenews: President Zelenski is pushing for the US/NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This would effectively mean expanding the war and involving a direct confrontation between US/NATO and Russia. The US and most NATO allies have refused to do this, but some in the EU such as Poland and the Baltic countries are seriously considering this possibility. Estonia has come out in support of a no-fly zone. If in the future the US/NATO change their position on the no-fly zone, will the world be faced with WWIII?

Professor Mangott: Upon initial consideration, a no-fly zone could easily be implemented, but if you establish this, NATO must enter Ukrainian airspace and then prevent Russian aircraft using this airspace. Ultimately, NATO would have to be prepared to down Russian aircraft with military force. This would start a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia and neither Russia nor NATO have escalation control if such a conflict emerges. And it could well include nuclear escalation from the Russian side.

“A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia …could … escalate into an all-out thermonuclear global war, which would mean the end of all of us.” Most western military experts argue that the concept of escalating to de-escalate is part of the Russian military doctrine, which means that if Russia is facing defeat in a conventional war, Russia is ready to use sub-strategic tactical nuclear weapons to stop the conventional war.

If this perception of the content of Russian military doctrine is correct, then a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia would include the threat of nuclear escalation. It is absolutely unclear if such a situation could then be controlled or would escalate into an all-out thermonuclear global war, which would mean the end of all of us.

A no-fly zone as supported by Eastern European member states is highly irresponsible and is very very risky. It should not be established and I do not think that NATO will come to this conclusion, even if the war rages on for the next weeks and months. This would be a red line that many NATO members do not want to cross, and that is good thing.

“We should rethink this policy of weapons deliveries … because weapons deliveries will only prolong the war and cause additional casualties, but will not prevent a military defeat of the Ukrainian side.” Delivering weapons to Ukraine is of course a sound policy if, and that is the big question, western military experts are correct when they argue that with these military weapons deliveries from the West, Ukraine would possibly prevent Russia from winning the war and probably withstand the Russian aggression. If that is correct, weapons deliveries are a very good step to take. But if they are wrong, and a majority of military experts are right when they argue that ultimately Russia will win the war against Ukraine, then we should rethink this policy of weapons deliveries. Because weapons deliveries will only prolong the war and cause additional casualties, but will not prevent a military defeat of the Ukrainian side.

iGlobenews: Yesterday the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia travelled to Kiev in a show of support for Ukraine. Will this change the US stance on the no-fly zone?

Professor Mangott: Not at all. This will have no influence. Actually, many of the countries in the European Union have not only been skeptical about this trip to Kiev by these three Prime Ministers, but also they are annoyed because it puts pressure on the other European governments to do the same. If the Polish, Czech and Slovenians are ready and brave enough to go to Kiev while Kiev is under military assault, then this should be done by other European prime ministers or presidents as well and many of them do not like to be forced or pressured to do the same as the Eastern Europeans. However, this will not in any way change the position of the major western powers inside NATO.

The emergency summit of NATO on March 24 with the likely attendance of Joe Biden will not result in a revision of the decision not to establish a no-fly zone and it will most likely not lead to a revised US position that NATO countries should not hand over their military aircraft to Ukraine to improve its air combat-fighting capacity against the Russian Air Force. It is very risky, because the Russian side does not know if the Polish MiGs handed over to Ukraine will be flown by Ukrainian pilots or Polish pilots. If Polish pilots fly the aircraft this would be direct interference in a military confrontation by Poland. Many experts argue that such a delivery of military aircraft does not make a great difference to Ukraine. Ukraine is not using its air force in the current conflict, having more aircraft will possibly not change this strategy of not employing the air force.

iGlobenews: The war in Ukraine is causing the civilian population unprecedented pain, suffering and death. Many civilian targets are being hit. Millions have fled and are continuing to flee the war zone. As so often happens, Europe, and especially those European countries bordering Ukraine, are bearing the burden of this unfolding humanitarian crisis. In your opinion, should the US be doing more to support the EU in dealing with this pressing issue?

“I do think the US should open its borders to Ukrainian refugees.”Professor Mangott: I do think the US should open its borders to Ukrainian refugees. The burden for the EU will be too great if it is left alone to tackle this problem. Expectations are that up to 10 million Ukrainians will have fled their country in the next months. That is something which is difficult for the EU, particularly the neighboring states Poland, Slovakia, Moldova and Hungary, which are under great pressure and great strain. The refugees will have to be redistributed across the EU. The US should be ready to accept a sizeable number of Ukrainian refugees as well, unlike what they did in the Syrian case, when many Arab Syrian refugees came to Europe and the US closed its borders. This time it should be different, given the strong political and military involvement of the US in this crisis.

iGlobenews: The EU has been hit much harder by the sanctions on Russia than the US, but energy costs continue to rise globally. Austria’s Finance Minister Magnus Brunner has stated that the European Commission’s target of replacing two thirds of Russian gas imports in 2022 is admirable but not a realistic goal. In your opinion, are these energy goals of the EU realistic? And if yes, how can they be achieved?

Professor Mangott: If the EU decides to buy less oil from the Russian side, this would be manageable because oil is a globally traded commodity. The EU could diversify its imports of oil and get more oil from other producers. But if major producers like Saudi Arabia, Iran or Iraq do not step up their production, or in the case of Iran be allowed to step up its production, then this oil that the EU would get from alternative sources would not be available for other customers. So this will entail an energy crisis for other countries which would have received the oil that in the future the EU will demand or ask for.

I do agree with the Austrian Finance Minister that this goal of getting rid of two thirds of gas deliveries to the EU is illusionary, that is not possible. Of course it is possible to diversify away from Russia. Actually this has been an effort by the European Commission for the past 15 years, but the options are limited. What is doable is to increase LNG imports. For the last three months, with very low flow of Russian gas to the European market, LNG imports have already increased from Qatar, Nigeria, Oman and particularly the US. But this had led to a situation where the 25 LNG terminals in EU countries are working at a capacity of 90%. If the EU diminishes the volume of gas it purchases from Russia, there is simply no capacity left to handle more imports of LNG from other countries. So this option is limited.

Getting more gas via pipeline is not very easy to do. Norway is producing at a very high level and the Norwegian Prime Minister has said they cannot produce more in the foreseeable future. There is no way that Norwegian gas can replace parts of Russian gas deliveries. More gas from North Africa, from Algeria and Libya, is also not available in great volumes. These countries need the gas they produce for their domestic consumption. Azerbaijan could somewhat increase its production and deliveries to the EU, but here we speak of 5 to 10 billion cubic meters. Diversifying away from Russian gas is a complex task, a long-term task. This announcement to get rid of two-thirds of Russian gas deliveries by the end of this year is illusory, one could say it is simply propaganda. It will not get implemented in reality.

The EU will also have to increase production of gas at the Groningen field in the Netherlands, to have more indigenous EU gas. They will have to boost energy consolidation, and need to increase production of energy by nuclear power and coal-fired power plants – which have already been phased out – these will again have to start producing heat and power. This means the de-carbonization efforts of the EU will seriously be undermined by what would be necessary to block Russian gas deliveries to Europe.

iGlobenews: Does this mean that Europe’s Green Deal is in danger? And will the JCPOA be an important piece in this puzzle, especially since the negotiations have been put on hold?

Professor Mangott: The Green Deal cannot be implemented in the way it was defined in the original plan. In an energy emergency the EU simply cannot but use more coal-fired power plants and use more LNG, which is derived from fracking. Especially US LNG has a negative ecological footprint. So yes, the Green Deal will be undermined, but it will happen if the EU decides to emancipate itself from Russian energy deliveries, not only oil, gas, but also coal.

If the West or EU would cut or reduce oil imports from Russia, it would be helpful if other countries would start to produce more oil. This relates primarily to Saudi Arabia, which has a lot of spare capacity. The Iranian production is also an issue. If the JCPOA were to be renewed and the nuclear-related sanctions including the oil embargo on Iran were lifted, then Iran would be capable of providing more oil to the international market. However, even if Iran produces at the highest level possible, this too will not substitute for the whole of Russian oil which will no longer be exported to the European market.

iGlobenews: Western media have stated that Putin has not achieved his goals in Ukraine as quickly as he thought he could and that the Russian military is weak and ineffective. Yet Russian official statements state that everything is going to plan.  Which of these statements in your opinion is true? 

Professor Mangott: We need to remind ourselves that we are in an information war. It is perfectly understandable why the Ukrainian government publishes very high numbers of Russian fatalities and it is perfectly understandable that the US and other western countries are arguing the Russian military is too weak to actually gain control over Ukraine. This is part of an information war which the Russian side is also involved in. When Peskow, Putin’s Press Secretary, yesterday announces that ‘everything is going to plan’, this does not necessarily mean that this is the case. It is definitely not the case because of what we know about the initial military strategy of the Russian side and the Commander of the Russian National Guard has publicly stated that it is not going to plan. He has deep knowledge about the military operation. If he goes online with this message that it is not all going to the initial plan then he is right. Peskow’s statement to the contrary is not credible and part of Russian propaganda.

“We need to remind ourselves that we are in an information war.”So indeed, the Russian side most likely expected to have an easier time in suppressing Ukraine and gaining control of Ukraine, but that does not mean the Russian side is not capable of doing so and is not willing to do whatever is needed in a military sense to achieve the objective of military capitulation, if the Ukrainian government is not prepared and willing to accept Russia’s political demands.

iGlobenews: Is President Putin being fully informed of the actual situation on the ground and what are the goals that President Putin wants to achieve in Ukraine?

Professor Mangott: It is difficult to say. We do not have any information on the inner circle of the Russian leadership, but it is fair to assume that Putin will not receive all the information about this war. He has over the past years decided to actually interact with only a very small group of people including the Secretary of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, the Head of the Domestic Intelligence Service (FSB), Alexander Bortnikov, and the Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu. This group also includes Yuri Kovalchuk, the banker who owns Bank Rossija. He is a close friend of Vladimir Putin and shares Putin’s ideas about Ukraine as part of the Russian world. So it is most likely that this small circle of people is providing Putin only with selective information, not giving him all the information.

As with every authoritarian regime we can assume that people working for the Presidency are not willing to dispute what Putin says and do not deliver negative news to the President. I do think that Putin is in a particular information space which does not give him the full picture of what is the reality on the ground, which is very risky. This lack of full information I also consider as one of the reasons why Putin, despite all the costs for Russia, has decided to launch this ground invasion.

The political goals are as stated a neutral demilitarized Ukraine, the recognition of Crimea and Sevastopol as Russian, and finally, the recognition of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and Luhansk, not in the borders the separatists control, but in the much larger territory that makes up the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Ukrainian state structure.

iGlobenews: If Putin were to fail in achieving these goals in Ukraine, will his position as President of the Russian Federation be in danger?

Professor Mangott: Putin must achieve a demilitarized neutrality. Demilitarization must not necessarily mean that the Ukrainians have to disarm completely or dissolve its armed forces. It could also mean that Ukraine accepts that certain weapons system must not be deployed on Ukrainian territory. The size of the Ukrainian military would be capped at a certain level. But, if Putin does not achieve demilitarized neutrality, then the question of course arises: why did he start this war if he does not gain more than he had before the war?

I do not think Putin can compromise on this demand. He also cannot compromise on the recognition of the independence of the Donbass republics. If he does, this would be a major military and political defeat for Vladimir Putin which would undermine his position not so much with the Russian population, but with the security and military establishment of the Russian Federation. In this case, questions will be asked. Why take all the cost of economic sanctions, all the casualties and the fatalities on the Russian side in this war? Now Russia is faced with a Ukrainian population which hates Russia – almost all the Ukrainian population hate Russia. What was this war for? I cannot think of a scenario where the Russian side will give up these demands, except for a very negative performance of the Russian side in the next weeks and months in the war on Ukraine’s territory. If Russia fails militarily, they will have to look for a compromise. If it cannot impose a military capitulation of Ukraine, they will need a deal with the Ukrainian government. This will be a major defeat for Vladimir Putin, a foreign policy fiasco.

iGlobenews: What is the impact of the sanctions imposed by the EU and the US on Russia? Will Russia change its strategy and end its military operation because of the effects of these sanctions?

“I do not think that even further sanctions like an oil and gas embargo or a full trade embargo would change the position of Vladimir Putin.”Professor Mangott: I do not think so. The deterrence capacity of western sanctions has a zero deterrence capability. Despite the threat of sanctions, Putin still decided to go ahead with this ground invasion. According to my information from Russian sources, the Russian leadership was quite surprised with the very early step of excluding several Russian banks from SWIFT. They were also surprised that the Central Bank of Russia was sanctioned at a very early stage. They would have expected that in both cases the German government would have blocked or at least delayed that. So in this respect they have been surprised, but not about all the other sanctions. They did not, as some now claim, underestimate the willingness of western states for a resolute response and did not expect great western disunity about the sanctions. They were fully aware of most of the sanctions. But still the Russian leadership has decided that the cost for Russia of the sanctions is acceptable for the political and military gains they would achieve through this military aggression.

Whether this calculation will be proven wrong is a question debated very seriously by Russia watchers and also inside Russia, but I do not think that even further sanctions like an oil and gas embargo or a full trade embargo would change the position of Vladimir Putin. Because that would mean that he finally actually bows to western pressure, he gets defeated by western pressure, which is something Putin will not accept. He has not been trained to lose a war.

iGlobenews: The US is pressuring China to sanction Russia. China has refused to do this. Will China continue to maintain its economic and military position regarding Russia? What implication does the conflict in Ukraine have for China and Taiwan?

Professor Mangott: Well, China even before the war started sided with Russia to a certain extent in the common declaration of Xi and Putin at the beginning of February. China agreed that Russian security concerns are legitimate and they also asked NATO not to expand any further. So in this respect China has sided with Russia before the war. China has also not voted against Russia in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, but has rather abstained.

But it is difficult for China now because they have close economic relations with both Russia and Ukraine and their basic principle of foreign policy is the sovereignty of countries and their territorial integrity must not be violated. So the Russian aggression is a bit tricky for China. Expectations that China could be a mediator are not completely wrong, but I am not very much convinced that this will be the case.

I am convinced that Russian expectations that China will come to the aid of Russia trying to mitigate the impact of western sanctions are a bit illusionary. Yes, China will help, as they have done after the sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014. But the message to China has been clear from the US, if they circumvent sanctions and help Russia economically and financially, there will be serious consequences. The US will impose sanctions on Chinese companies. If that happens, the world economy will be seriously weakened if there are sanctions against Russia and China,  or even lead to a recession.

I think China is so far the winner of this conflict for two reasons. Firstly, Russia is now almost completely dependent on China. It is de facto the junior partner in this alignment between Russia and China. And secondly, the US will, contrary to their position, have to focus much more on the European continent. They have to be the ultimate guarantor of European security which will mean that the US will have to send many more troops to Europe, particularly to the Eastern European NATO countries. It will be a strong financial commitment of the US to European security. The US will not be able to focus exclusively on the challenge by China in Asia. So in this respect China is a winner.

As far as Taiwan is concerned, I do not think that a Chinese aggression against Taiwan is now much more likely. Quite to the contrary, China has witnessed what the West is willing to do to Russia. And of course, China is also closely interconnected with the global economy and the global financial markets, so it is also vulnerable to western sanctions. In case of aggression against Taiwan, western sanctions will be definitely imposed. In addition, unlike in Ukraine, where there is no direct military involvement of the West in the military conflict, in the case of Taiwan we have this strategic ambiguity on the US side – whether they will come to the defense of Taiwan, which over the past years has been less and less ambiguous. It has become clearer that the US will engage on the Taiwanese side in the case of a military conflict with China, if it was not Taiwan that had provoked this military conflict. So I do think that an aggression against Taiwan is less likely than it has been in the past years, despite the fact Xi wants to be defined in history books as the one who has reunited Chinese lands. I do not think we will see an aggression against Taiwan in the coming years.

Picture: Prof. Gerhard Mangott ©

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