Finland’s NATO Application, Western Policy in Ukraine and the War’s Global Fallout
Finland’s NATO Application, Western Policy in Ukraine and the War’s Global Fallout
Podcast / Europe & Central Asia 20+ minutes

Finland’s NATO Application, Western Policy in Ukraine and the War’s Global Fallout

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks with former Finnish Prime Minister and Crisis Group trustee Alexander Stubb about Finland’s decision to apply for NATO membership, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the war’s global repercussions.

NATO leaders meeting next week in Madrid have a lot on their agendas. Russia’s war in Ukraine has entered its fifth month, with fierce fighting continuing along front lines in Ukraine’s east and south. Media coverage increasingly suggests differences of opinion are hurting the unity NATO powers have displayed thus far during the crisis. The war’s global fallout is becoming ever starker, as a commodities crisis and cost of living hikes start to bite in different parts of the world. NATO leaders will also discuss Finnish and Swedish applications to join the alliance, a reversal of both countries' decades-long position outside NATO. Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine rapidly swayed publics in both countries toward membership. Hurdles remain, however: Türkiye has so-far blocked the application, criticising, amongst other things, what it believes is too lax a policy within the Scandinavian countries toward the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkish insurgent group that Türkiye, along with other countries, lists as a terrorist organisation. 

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks with former Finnish Prime Minister and Crisis Group trustee Alexander Stubb about the Finnish decision to join NATO, the war in Ukraine more broadly and its global ramifications. They break down the reasons behind the dramatic shifts in Swedish and Finnish public opinion, what a successful application would mean for the balance of force between NATO and Russia, and the likelihood of Turkish opposition scuppering their chances of membership. They talk more widely about NATO policy toward Ukraine, looking at how Western powers should respond to different scenarios. They also ask whether cracks are showing in NATO’s unity. They discuss global perceptions of the war and of Western policy, as an economic crisis partly fuelled by the war looms. They also look at why some leaders in the Global South have distanced themselves from the West’s efforts to isolate Russia and even blame Western sanctions as much as Russia’s aggression for fuel and food price hikes. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the war in Ukraine, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Ukraine country page and read our latest commentary, "Why Türkiye's Hindrance of NATO's Nordic Expansion Will Likely Drag On".

Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt.

Richard  00:06
Hi and welcome to Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I’m Richard Atwood. Today, we’re going to talk again about Russia’s war in Ukraine and we’re going to talk about some of the global fallout from the war.

Clip  00:17
We have reached today an important decision in good cooperation between the government and the president of the republic. It will be based on a strong mandate. With the president of the republic, we have been in close contact with governments of NATO member states and NATO itself.

Clip  00:36
Finland and Sweden will be warmly welcomed into the NATO military alliance. That was the message from all NATO foreign ministers at a meeting in Berlin, except for one. Turkey has made an objection saying the Nordic nations are hosting what it calls “terrorist organisations”, pointing among others at the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party.

Richard  00:57
So, we’ll look today at the Finnish and Swedish applications to NATO ahead of alliance leaders meeting in Madrid next week. We just heard Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin talking about that and reporting on some of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s objections to Finnish and Swedish membership. We’ll then look at some of the scenarios in Ukraine in the weeks ahead and what they mean for NATO policy. Plus, we’re going to talk about how the war is perceived in other parts of the world, especially given its economic repercussions: the global commodities crisis, sharply spiking costs of food and fuel, and how some leaders blame Western sanctions for that as much as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Clip  01:34
The head of the African Union, Senegalese President Macky Sall, says he's happy and reassured after talks in Russia with President Vladimir Putin. Following his meeting in Sochi, Sall appealed to the West to ease their sanctions on Russia. Take a listen.

Clip  01:48
Russia must also be able to export fertilisers and food products, mainly cereals, since it's the country that exports the most cereals. Obviously, these requests are incompatible with sanctions. That's why we decided after this exchange to appeal to Western partners.

Richard  02:09
So, I’m really delighted this week to welcome Alexander Stubb who is the former Finnish prime minister and also a trustee of the International Crisis Group. He’s really one of the best thinkers not only, of course, on Finnish foreign policy, but also on European security, and world affairs more broadly. Alex, welcome on.

Alex  02:28
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Richard  02:30
So, we're going to talk obviously about the Ukraine war, some of the ways it could go and what that might mean for Western, for NATO policy. We're also going to look a little bit at something that I know you've spent some time thinking about, which is why much of the non-Western world has sort of distanced itself from Western efforts to isolate Putin. But I'd like to start, Alex, if we can, with the Finnish and Swedish applications to NATO and their implications. Now, obviously the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a major impact on Finnish perceptions of their country's security, it’s shifted public opinion very quickly. Do you want to say something about that? I mean, why did it take Ukraine this time around to have such an impact, rather than the 2014 Crimea annexation, intervention in the Donbas, or even going further back Georgia in 2008, and the sort of Abkhazia, South Ossetia interventions?

Alex  03:24
Yeah, I guess two answers. One is a little bit longer, the other one is shorter. The longer arc here is to understand that the Finns have been quite good at, you know, shifting tack when history asks for it. So in 1809, when Sweden lost us to Russia, we maximised our autonomy with, you know, language, culture, identity, even currency. Then in 1917, when we had the opportunity to declare independence in the middle of the Bolshevik Revolution, we did that. In 1944, we accepted a reluctant peace with Stalin and lost ten per cent of our territory. In 1991, only a few months after the Soviet Union collapsed, actually then on 18 March 1992, we filed for an application for EU membership. And I think a similar thing happened on 24 February. Finnish public opinion on NATO – this my second point – had been quite reluctant or lukewarm, to put it diplomatically. So you had about 50 per cent of the population against and about twenty in favour. I belonged to that little minority of twenty per cent for the better part of 30 years. But when Putin attacked Ukraine, overnight actually in an opinion poll taken on 23, 24, 25 February, Finns shifted – so went basically to 50 to 52 per cent in favour and about twenty plus against. And now, you know, we're talking about 80 per cent in favour. And in parliament, there were 188 members of parliament that voted in favour of NATO membership, and eight against so it's a big shift. Sure.

Richard  05:06
And why were you ahead of Finnish popular opinion in a way? I mean, why did you support NATO membership, even before this display of Russian aggression?

Alex  05:15
Well, I guess I've always been very Western-orientated. I got my undergraduate degree in the United States. I actually started studying in 1989, so we're talking, you know, the end of the Cold War, the Berlin wall comes down, Finland gets an opportunity to file for membership in the European Union, the East and the West meet again, the end of history, towards liberal democracy, social market economy, and globalisation. And I felt that, you know, we should join the security umbrella of Europe and of the transatlantic relationship. And I felt that we should have done it at the same time as EU membership. Now, I guess, with hindsight, had there been a referendum, the vote would have been actually negative. But what we did instead then, was to integrate ourselves as closely as possible to NATO, with our military equipment, and of course to the United States. So I was ahead of the curve, because I believed that this was an organisation that Finland always belonged to, and it would be a good security repellent against Russia.

Richard  06:16
And we'll talk in a moment about Turkish President Erdoğan, you know, some of his objections. But let's assume that the Turkish concerns can be overcome. How does Finnish and Swedish membership sort of change the balance of force, particularly around the Baltic Sea?

Alex  06:35
Well, I think it's a win-win proposition. For Finland, Sweden, obviously, but I think more so actually for NATO, for the Baltic Sea region, for north eastern Europe, for the alliance and actually for European and global security. And the reason is very simple, that you're probably getting two countries that have a very similar NATO profile to that of say Norway, Iceland and Denmark. So it's not, you know, an aggressive membership in any which way. On top of that, with Finland you are getting one of the largest standing military forces in Europe with 900,000 men and women in reserves, 280,000 that can be mobilised in wartime, with 62 F-18s, with a purchase of 64 F-35s, one of the most sophisticated land-to-air and air-to-land missile defence systems. You add onto that the Swedish Navy and the Swedish Air Force. And you can see that suddenly around the Baltic Sea region, we have something like 250 fighter jets. So, you know, we're talking about countries that are more NATO-compatible than most NATO countries themselves. We've been involved in NATO exercises in the region, Finland was in the Kosovo Force in Kosovo, and in ISAF in Afghanistan. So in that sense, a safe pair of hands which will increase security in the region, rather than decrease it.

Richard  07:58
So far, this has run into several objections from President Erdoğan – partly, but not only, related to the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. This is the Kurdish insurgent group that Turkey designates as a terrorist group. The U.S. and the EU do the same. Erdoğan says some PKK members are based in the Nordic countries. Plus, Turkish anger at Western support of what Ankara views as a PKK affiliate, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been fighting the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria. And there are other Turkish demands too. Erdoğan may be playing domestic politics of course, distracting from the economic situation at home. But initially, people seemed pretty confident that his objections could be overcome ahead of the NATO summit at the end of this month. But now, from what I understand, Finnish and Swedish diplomats feel they've sort of reached an impasse or gotten as far as they can now with their Turkish counterparts? Is that your reading too? And if so, what do you make of that?

Alex  09:00
Well, I'm actually quite relaxed about it. And I think the demands of Erdoğan are basically threefold. The first one is linked to PKK, Kurds and terrorism. The second one is linked to an arms embargo, which was put forth by the European Union in the wake of war in Syria. And the third one, which is probably the most difficult one, and the real one really, is the Turkish purchase of F-35s from the United States, which was the program which pretty much grounded and froze after Turkey bought some S-400 defence missile systems from Russia. So I think what President Erdoğan is doing is on the one hand, perhaps playing a bit of a domestic political game, he's got elections coming up next year. And on the other hand, he wants to put pressure on America to get those F-35s. Impasse? No, I'm quite confident that we'll find a solution, you know, sooner rather than later. Whether it'll be Madrid or not, I really don't know. I know that as we are recording this, only yesterday, Finland, Sweden, Turkey and representatives of NATO met in Brussels. I don't have any intel on that meeting. But perhaps the noises, sounds and murmurs that we're getting from there are fairly positive but also a message that it's unlikely to find a solution before the Madrid meeting. Having said all of that, you know, Finland has always been a friend of Turkey. We were the presidency when we opened the negotiations for the EU for Turkey. I was foreign minister when I established the “Friends of Peace” peace mediation together with Ahmet Davutoğlu. In the UN, you know, we've always had very good relations, and our president has been very clear that we take Turkish security seriously. So at the end of the day, we will find a solution. And in the meanwhile, I think we feel quite secure about where we are with our you know, bilateral mutual security assurances, etc.

Richard  11:03
And the way that Moscow has responded generally, given some of President Putin's other statements during the war, Moscow has been reasonably circumspect, reasonably sort of restrained in its statements about Finnish and Swedish membership, with the sort of caveat that, you know, it depends a little bit what forces and what weapons NATO deploys to new members if the membership goes ahead. So I mean, what do you make of that? I mean, should that factor into calculations in any way?

Alex  11:32
Well, I mean, I guess the starting point is to say that, you know, this enlargement would not have taken place, was it not for Putin’s attack on Ukraine. I mean, Finland or Sweden would not have joined. So if you think of Putin’s attack in Ukraine as a bankruptcy, Finland and Sweden in that bankruptcy were already written down as NATO members. So, you know, I think that's the way in which the Kremlin sees it. They probably didn't expect it, you know, this sort of unintended consequence bonus, even, if you will, but it happened because of that. At the same time, I think that the Kremlin sees Finland and Sweden as, you know, a fairly safe pair of hands. Cooperation has been quite good historically. Certainly, also after the post-Cold War period. Relations have been quite cordial, not aggressive. Language used has been quite moderate, I think on both sides. So I'm not saying I'm super relaxed, but I'm certainly not, you know, too worried about about the reaction coming from Russia, because they also understand that they would not have the possibility or the capability to basically work on two fronts at the moment, they're very preoccupied in Ukraine, and then to start creating havoc about, you know, two formerly militarily non-aligned countries joining NATO, because they caused it, would be probably unwise from the Russian side.

Richard  12:54
And so could we talk a little bit then about sort of NATO policy, Western policy more broadly related to the Ukraine war? I mean, for the most part, Western leaders have trod quite a difficult balance between giving Ukraine the weapons, the financial support that it needs, signalling very clearly how much they're behind Ukraine to hold Russian forces at bay. Obviously, President Zelensky's leadership and sort of Ukrainian determination is a big part of that as well. But clearly, Western support has been critical. All the while trying to avoid too high a risk of escalation into a direct war between NATO and Russia. I mean, generally speaking, do you think that NATO has got that balance right?

Alex  13:39
I do. I mean, there's not that much more that can be done. I mean, again, if we go back to the early days of the war, I think many were surprised at the determination and the efficiency and the unity of both the European Union and NATO in terms of rolling out the sanctions. First, four waves coming from Europe and a little bit later from the United States and the United Kingdom, then that being sort of added on a few weeks later. Then also financial support, support in armaments. There isn't really that much more that NATO or the EU can actually do. Having said all of that, you know, if Putin had just walked into Kyiv as many expected, in a few days, I think the unity and the determination of the West would have looked very different. We could have been in a sort of Georgia 2.0, or Crimea 2.0 type of a situation. So, you know, when Zelensky says that he's fighting for the freedom and the values of the West, and especially of Europe, I think he's right, you know, and we should be grateful for the sacrifices that he and Ukraine make. Could we have done something more? I don't think so. You know, early on, there were talks about no-fly zones and others, but then we're getting into military activity that could have potentially escalated the conflict. Having said that, it's quite interesting to see now that you sort of clearly have two camps in Europe and elsewhere as well. You have the ones who want peace and now, and then you have the ones who want the defeat of Russia. And to be honest, it will probably be somewhere in between the two. But not much more NATO could have done at this stage.

Richard  15:32
And as you say, there have been these two camps, or at least sort of a lot of media attention on these sort of emerging divisions. Certainly there are differences in the way different Western leaders talk about the war. But you don’t think those are a bit overegged? That in reality they haven’t, at least not yet, had much impact on the actual policy? 

Alex  15:52
Yeah, in reality, the direction is very clear. I've said it from the beginning. We're sort of beyond the point of no return and whether you like it or not, Russia will be fully isolated and that means political, economic, financial isolation. It also means sports culture, transport and, at the end of the day, full energy as well, which, you know, of course from a long perspective it's not very comfortable to have 1,340 kilometres of border with the biggest North Korea in the world. But I'm sure that you know, Russia will find then avenues eastbound and southbound of cooperation, but that is the reality – a totally split Europe where on one side of the new Iron Curtain you have an isolated Russia and on the other side, you have more or less 40 European democracies abiding by international law and rules. And the unity is quite steadfast, but usually what happens in the public discourse is that, you know, if there's a delay, say in the oil embargo coming from Prime Minister Orbán in Hungary, that is then being highlighted as a portrayal of disunity. Having said all of this, I think unity will last only to a certain point, I can already start detecting and I have been for almost two months now a certain war fatigue. You know, it's a natural reaction. It's obviously quite sad, but the truth is that the human mind starts to wander in different directions, as does then public opinion, and thus, you know, the importance of having this conversation about, you know, peace or justice – kind of, which one should we go for? Because people now back home, so in Europe and also in the United States and the UK, are starting to focus on, you know, inflation, stagflation, food prices, energy prices, the migration crisis. And, you know, we haven't seen half of it yet. And when that happens, I think the focus will shift from solidarity, unity and support for Ukraine to probably a slightly more split Europe. But that's quite normal.

Richard  18:03
And I'd like to talk in a moment about the sanctions, particularly after we've talked a little bit about perceptions of the war in other parts of the world. But the peace-justice discussion that you talked about. I’m sure you've seen it, there’s this very interesting polling from the European Council on Foreign Relations, which looked at popular opinion, as you say, in different countries in Europe, and that it was sort of shifting toward the “peace”  side – big simplification but even though European publics sympathise enormously with Ukrainians, they want to the war to end as soon as possible, rather than punishing Russia, and they have politicians focusing on stuff like the cost of living crisis, economic downturn. Also, it’s the sort of thing right-wing populists tend to do well out of. Which is another dimension to it. And I mean, in that sense, there's sort of been a lot of criticism of President Macron, for example, for making comments about making sure that Russia wasn't humiliated, and that in the end there's going to have to be some sort of compromise. But isn't he in some ways more in tune with the way opinion is moving in Europe?

Alex  19:10
Well, first of all, I was in the annual meeting of the European Council for Foreign Relations in Berlin Sunday-Monday, and it was fascinating to have the conversations and the study that you refer to was presented there as well, in the terms that you said. Yeah, I guess, you know, I mean, if you start looking at raw opinion polls, and where people want to see this end, I mean, if you ask the question, do you want peace? I mean, it's not exactly like, you're gonna say “no, I want war”. So the devil lies in the detail and the question itself. I think it's very important for European leaders now to just show 100 per cent support to Ukraine, and especially President Zelensky. And, of course, it's a difficult balance, you know. You do have this school of thought, which I, to a certain extent, belong to myself, where I do think that Putin needs to be defeated. Any talk about him saving face I find quite repugnant actually. You know, he's, you know, he's killing murdering women, children, innocent human beings.

Richard  20:14
To be fair, though, Alex, wasn't Macron saying that Russia needed to save face rather than Putin himself?

Alex  20:20
Yeah. I mean, I guess so. But, you know, I mean, coming from a country that has been attacked by the Soviet Union and has lost ten per cent of its territory, including the birthplace of my grandparents and my father, to a grand aggressor which was the Soviet Union. I mean, you know, it's not exactly like it can say here “yeah, it's okay for you to save face”. So it's, you know, a leader is a leader, a state is a state, but a leader leads a state. So, I think what we need to look at here is more the sequence, right? So how do we get to peace? Well, that needs to be determined by the Ukrainians. What does that peace mean? Well, unfortunately peace is not going to be pretty. It rarely is. Which means, you know, a compromise. Realistically, it's very difficult to imagine, you know, going back to the status quo on 24 February. And if that's the case, how far then do you push it? And do you get regime change? So what I want to say is that in the short term, I think Russia needs to be defeated. But in the long term, hopefully, there will be one time, a day, when Russia abides by international law and doesn't behave aggressively towards its neighbours and break international law. So it's a really difficult nut to crack. I do admit.

Richard  21:40
And what does Russian defeat, I mean, what does that entail? I mean, is that back to 24 February lines? Is it out of Ukraine altogether, including Crimea? Is it the end of President Putin's government? I mean, what exactly does defeat entail and, to be candid, right now the most likely scenario for the moment – and again, there's a short term and a long term, as you say – but for now, the most likely scenario appears to be fairly static frontlines in Donbas and in the south, with the Russians holding onto the areas that they've just captured north of Crimea. Maybe some sort of pause in fighting if both sides see an advantage to pause and to regroup. But it will be nothing more than that. But so far, the idea of Ukraine being able to push Russia out of the territories it's currently controlling seems a stretch for the moment at least.

Alex  22:34
Yeah, I mean, I guess you could say that from a Western or Ukrainian perspective, there's what I would call the perfect peace, and then there's the ugly peace. And the perfect peace of course is, you know, to return to as things were pre-2014. Which means Crimea, which means Donbas as part of Ukraine. Having said that, of course, if you look at Donbas today, it's completely destroyed. And for what? That is my question, you know. For the ego of a Russian leader, I mean, it just goes beyond me. And the second one is then the ugly peace, which is the more likely scenario, not the one that we want. But, you know, we're not even then, in that case, looking at frozen conflicts, as we did in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, but we might be looking at annexation of territory. And you know, again, if that's the case, how do you give a sort of gracious exit to Russia from that? You just can't because they have violated all basic rules and norms of international law. And you cannot let that happen if we want to live in a civilised world. And we haven't even started the discussion on war crimes yet and what that means. So, it's a very difficult impasse. And I guess, if I were to predict, I just think we're in this for the long haul, I'm afraid.

Richard  23:57
And, Alex, could I ask one more on this before we move to views about the war in other parts of the world? So both sides seem to be taking very heavy casualties. Certainly the Russians have suffered enormous losses since the start of the war. But the Ukrainians too – I mean Zelensky himself and the minister of defence have cited very high numbers of Ukrainian casualties over the past few weeks. So it may be that they come to a point where not necessarily a ceasefire, no formal agreement, but some sort of maybe some sort of informal lull in fighting. That both sides see a pause, even if temporary, as in their interests. As an opportunity to regroup. Even if then the front lines stay fairly static. Now, Western leaders have said they will take their cue from Zelensky. But how should they respond if there is a truce, or a lull in fighting, along those lines? What are the risks for NATO policy in a scenario like that? 

Alex  24:56
I think the key is to take the cue from Zelensky and do what he wants. We also have to understand that the cost of war, just keeping Ukraine running at the moment, by some estimates we're talking about 60 to 70 billion euros a year. So five to six billion plus per month and, you know, those are colossal sums. If you just think about it in a country like Finland, our annual budget is 50 to 55 billion. That's an annual budget to run the whole country basically on the public sector side. So we're talking about massive monetary issues here. Will there be sort of an impasse or a cooldown during the summer period? I mean, it could very well be. But what does Zelensky want to do? And then will this allow Russia to regroup? You know, what are going to continue to be the hotspots in the war? You know, how long does this sort of non-war fatigue go on in Ukraine? So I really don't have an answer for this. And, you know, we can always go back in history and have a look and say, okay, you know, the Winter War, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland lasted 105 days, and then there was sort of an intermittent peace, before there was then the war of continuation. So I mean, that could be, I guess, one scenario, but I really don't know.

Richard  26:21
And so you've written quite a bit on the way other parts of the world have reacted initially in the in the sort of UN General Assembly votes, with the sort of overwhelming show of support for Ukraine, but then subsequently, many countries with a lot of regional distinction, and for very different reasons, have in some ways distanced themselves from the West's efforts to isolate Russia. Do you want to say a word or two about that?

Alex  26:49
Yeah, sure. I think I'm trying to look at things from a Western perspective and highlight this sort of misconception that this war is only about, you know, Russia and the West. I actually think it's about more than that. It's also about the West and the Rest. And, you know, when I saw the UN vote – 141 against Russia, 35 abstaining, and four with Russia. I mean, of course, you know, you take a little bit of joy in the numbers, but then when you start scraping the surface, you realise that the 141 was actually quite soft and scraped together last minute, at least according to all the sources that I've discussed with who are close to the UN. Then you look at the 35 that abstained and you understand that's over half of the world's population, of course, because it includes China and India. So that the case is not that clear cut. And then when I started to look around a little bit more, I mean, reactions in, say, Africa, where you have a lot of non-aligned countries. I think you've had many good conversations on The Horn podcast as well from Crisis Group on this. You know, some of the countries say: listen, this is your war, but it has ramifications on us in terms of prices of fertiliser, in terms of prices of food, and actually distribution of food, not least when it comes to grains, and then in terms of energy prices, so deal with it. And on top of that, don't come here and give your high moral ground as former colonial powers about territorial integrity and moving borders. Then you start looking at Latin America. You know, you have interestingly enough, Lula from the left and Bolsonaro from the right in Brazil, saying the same thing and saying that this actually, you know, is the fault of Zelensky and Ukraine, with which I disagree. Then there are a lot of path dependencies like India, for instance, when it comes to military equipment, military imports, most of it coming from Russia. Now, the case that I find super interesting from a power politics perspective is China. A lot of people thought that it would pivot to Russia, but obviously it didn't. And the reason is very simple. You know, it is afraid of secondary sanctions, its business with Russia is 80 billion. Business with Europe is 800 billion. So, you know, it might be giving some lukewarm communication support for Russia and it might go into, you know, the power vacuums that emerged when Europe leaves because of sanctions. But other than that, this is not going to be one of these classic cases where, you know, China and Russia are gonna unite. So their reaction, it's quite patchy, it's not as emotional. It's not as close as it is for us here in Europe, which is, of course, understandable. The further away you are from the conflict, the less you feel it pertains to you.

Richard  29:40
Yeah, absolutely. And as you say, different reasons in different parts of the world. But there does seem to be this sort of disconnect between Western leaders, who understandably see the war as not only a European security issue, but a wider global issue. The violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, as you say, the violation of international law – that's a matter for the world, not just for Europe. But in other parts of the world many leaders see it as Europe's war or a struggle between NATO and Russia rather than between Ukraine defending itself against Russian aggression. But seemingly increasingly overriding this much of this as well as this increasing sense – and I’m interested what you think of this – that the West has maybe not been attentive enough to the commodities crisis and the impact of the sanctions that we talked about. And although clearly, Russia is responsible for the consequences of the war, plus it has blockaded Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, stopped the export of Ukrainian grain, attacked grain silos, stolen grain, stopped exports of some of its own commodities, and then blamed sanctions for that. So that's an important context. But sanctions also play a role. The Senegalese president, African Union chair, Macky Sall for example, who has been invited to the G7 meeting this weekend, has been quite explicit that African leaders see sanctions as part of the problem. Even if Russian grain and fertilisers aren't sanctioned themselves, it's hard to pay for them with the sanctions on the banking sector, it’s hard to insure Russian shipments. And Western governments are reluctant to have that discussion, and they’re maybe not losing but definitely not winning the debate in the Global South, they’re not winning this battle of perceptions. And in some ways, in terms of relations between the West and the Rest, as you say, it's quite a dangerous moment right?

Alex  31:42
Yeah, definitely. I think, you know, if you look at the earliest stages of the war, obviously, you know, Zelensky won the communications battle, you know, 100 to zero. But now, with the commodities issue, I think the Russians have been able to push their message, which, of course, is false. I mean, they steal grain from Ukraine, take it to themselves, and then block it. But it's a perception, and unfortunately we live, you know, in a world of perceptions at times, and Europe and the West need to work on this to make sure that first of all, you know, it points the finger at who is actually at fault. And then secondly, try to alleviate the pain as well. So, from what I understand, this is very much an organisational issue, which, from a communications perspective, could go sour. But one thing that I do want to stress is that, you know, when I say this also about the West and the Rest, it's also about the global order, you know, in the sense that there has been obviously a Western dominance, and the whole rules-based order that we've created has been created in, you know, you can call them universal values or Western values. You can agree with them or disagree with them. I happen to agree with them. I think they provide for the most just and best form of society, but the way in which the West has been dealing with these post-Cold War hasn't exactly been humble. So you know, I'd like to see a little bit of humility and a little bit of dignity in the way in which, you know, the West deals with the Rest, a little bit more engagement. And this will, you know, require some difficult choices I think from the side of the West. But that's why I think that the war in Ukraine has actually been a trigger to this conversation.

Richard  33:24
And the difficult choices. I mean, don't the difficult choices at the moment come down to precisely some of the things that we've been talking about? In terms of whether it’s accommodation with Putin, whether it’s the sanctions. What do those difficult choices entail, without touching on what we’ve already discussed? I mean, are there others?

Alex  33:44
Well, I think it's a balance between two things. One is rules or how you stick to them or, as the case might be with Putin and Russia, not. And the other one is values. And what I think the West needs to sort of understand is that if they want to maintain the rules-based world order, there might have to be some compromises on the value side, because not everyone believes that, you know, liberal democracy, human rights, fundamental rights, equalities, protection of minorities are the right values. I happen to believe they are. But there might be someone else who thinks in a different way. And the question is, can we engage in a dialogue, which is not top down or paternalistic, but is bottom up and engaging? That's, I think, the big question that we're going to have, but it's about basic behavioural patterns. And I think the sort of era of the arrogance of the West is coming toward some kind of an end. Or if it doesn't, we're going to have to, you know, wake up and smell the coffee.

Richard  34:46
And in some ways, maybe the framing that certainly the Biden administration, but that others have used as well, of this being a struggle between autocracy and democracy. I mean, that framing might not be the right one to persuade leaders in the Global South, partly because some are not democrats, but also because it sort of rings hollow as inevitably the US and others have close ties to many non-democratic governments? Maybe an argument rooted in sovereignty might have been a more powerful one.

Alex  35:17
Yeah, it could be. And I think this is the big conversation that needs to be held. I think, you know, the Cold War was bipolar: the Soviet Union, the United States and their allies. The post-Cold War was more or less unipolar with the American lead. We then started to wane after 9/11 and the financial crisis and Donald Trump. And now we live in a multipolar world. And the question is, how do we keep this sort of multipolar world engaged in the multilateral rules-based system? And I think this is something that all of us have to think about together. And it's not going to be easy.

Richard  35:56
Tell me if this is a fair framing. The gamble or the calculation in Western capitals is that these sanctions – really comprehensive sanctions, perhaps some of the toughest ever – will weaken Russia, weaken President Putin’s hand to conduct similar aggression elsewhere. Maybe some people think they will shift incentives for the Kremlin. I think that seems unlikely. But they may still weaken Moscow. And that the risks in terms of the global economy, the repercussions on food, fertiliser, fuel prices, the risks of potential knock-on effects at those risks are worth taking in service of that bigger goal – containing, attempting to isolate Moscow. Do you think that is a fair way of portraying the calculation Western leaders are making? The dilemma, if it is a dilemma, that they are facing?

Alex  36:53
Well, I think the dilemma is very close to home. And that dilemma is Russia. And the question is, you know, what kind of instruments of power, instruments of war do you have against a grand aggressor? With the aim of not sacrificing more lives. And I think sanctions are an instrument of power and an instrument of war, you know, as is energy, as is currency, as is technology, as are human shields at times. And you know, that is the only instrument that we have. And the truth is that we cannot – we cannot – allow a grand aggressor to break blatantly international law, kill innocent people, and go without any kind of, you know, punishment. And the strongest punishment that we have are sanctions, they hit the West as hard as they hit anyone else. You know, this is the price of peace. And that's why the dilemma is so complicated.

Richard  37:56
Alex, really, thank you so much for coming on and making time to talk to me today.

Alex  38:01
My pleasure. Thanks a lot.

Richard  38:05
Hold Your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I'm Richard Atwood. You can find all of Crisis Group’s work on our website, You can also follow us on Twitter, @CrisisGroup. We also now have transcripts for our shows. So if you want to reference or check up on anything you’ve heard, that should make it easier. They’re also on our website. Thanks to our producers, Sam Mednick, Kevin Murphy and Finn Johnson. And thanks of course to all of you, to all our listeners. Please get in touch, [email protected], or write to me directly, [email protected] if you have any suggestions. If you like the show, please do leave us a positive rating or review. Next week we’ll probably talk in a bit more depth about some of those perceptions in the Global South that Alex and I discussed, how the Ukraine war is shaping not only the West’s relations with Russia, but also Western capitals’ ties to other leaders around the world. So I very much hope you'll join us again for that.


Executive Vice President
Alexander Stubb
Director of the School of Transnational Governance; Former Prime Minister of Finland

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