Jan Kofroň: Russia’s nuclear weapons are “its only surviving card”

Ukrainian soldiers

Recent weeks have seen important events take place in relation to the war that Russia has unleashed on Ukraine, whether it be the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region, or Vladimir Putin’s Wednesday announcement of a partial mobilisation in Russia. To find out more about the wider ramifications of the current situation on the global balance of power, I spoke to Dr Jan Kofroň, an international relations and security expert at Charles University. He said that Russia’s partial mobilisation comes far later than it should have.

“Had they decided to go for some sort of partial, or semi-mobilisation by mid-March, they could have gained something important out of it and prevail in the conflict. Right now, they will be just fighting hard to keep what they were able to get and will not be able to defeat Ukraine. That’s my guess.”

So, in other words they already missed the opportunity?

“Had they decided to go for some sort of partial, or semi-mobilisation by mid-March, they could have gained something important out of it and prevail in the conflict.”

“To a large extent. It seems to me that their bet, in the past couple of months or weeks, was that they were basically hoping that they will be able to stabilise the front until late-autumn and that they would then try to go into negotiations with the Europeans and others. They may have been hoping to play the energy card so hard that at least some Europeans would eventually decide that they perhaps do not want to support Ukraine. However, by now, it is much easier for European politicians to sell to their domestic voters that Ukraine should be supported because the Ukrainians are able to get their land back. It is much easier to say this when you have some sort of result in hand, rather than if you had absolutely nothing.”

Looking at the areas that were at least claimed by Russia to be within their sphere of influence – the Caucasus and Central Asia - we saw recently that President Vladimir Putin was perhaps not getting as much respect from the leaders of some of the republics in these regions as in the past. How much influence do you think Russia has lost with these partners and how much of a threat is this potentially for stability in these regions?

Jan Kofroň | Photo: Kateřina Cibulka,  Czech Radio

“The Ukraine War was a big blow for Russia. No doubt about it. And obviously all of those states in the vicinity of Russia, including Turkey, are realising that Russia is not as powerful as it used to be.

“Basically now the only surviving card that Russia has are its nuclear weapons because the majority of their current force is committed in Ukraine. So some of these states may feel that they can do what they want now as long as they can at least manage the situation to some extent.

Basically now the only surviving card that Russia has are its nuclear weapons because the majority of their current force is committed in Ukraine.”

"You can easily see that Azerbaijan is taking advantage in this sense, attacking Armenia. There are clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It’s basically what you said – the situation there is destabilising. Whatever we may think about Russia in the context of Europe, Russia is also, at least to some extent, or has been, a stabilising factor in the Caucasus region, in Central Asia, etc. I am not saying that they were stabilising for good, but at least they were stabilising to some extent.

"Now, with this situation totally changed, one can imagine that local elites might decide that it’s perhaps time to move on and get rid of their local enemies.”

How concerning is a potential destabilisation of those regions to you as an International Relations scholar and to professionals within your community? Generally, populations in the West seem to be supportive of their governments’ efforts to support Ukraine, many hope that Russia will be defeated, but how much of a wider risk would a true defeat of Russia bring?

“This would be a huge speculation, but I think that some problems, especially in Central Asia, will not be so important to Europe. It might end in something relatively tragic for the local populations, for the states in the vicinity of the given hotspot.

Photo: Martin Dorazín,  Czech Radio

"I can still imagine that it would have some tremendous implications for the Caucasus region. That said, if we are being honest, is it important for Europeans? No, this is not an area of vital interest for us. And this holds even more when it comes to the United States. Take, for example, the two-year-old war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. How important was it for us? Almost not at all.

"So, yes there might be some destabilisation in those regions, but I don’t think that will affect us in some profound way.”

What do you think China’s position is in all of this? It seems that it has withdrawn some of its initial support for Russia since the failures in February and March. Do you think China might be playing to gain influence in Kazakhstan and Central Asia in general? Is Russia facing the threat of becoming a vassal state of China as we sometimes hear?

“My guess is that the dependence of Russia on China will indeed grow over time and there is little we can do about that. This is because we obviously do not want to accept a Ukrainian defeat or further expansionist tendencies of Russia towards Europe. We therefore logically push against Russia which in turn means that the Kremlin needs to look for economic or political allies elsewhere. Where would that be? China.

“Obviously, China is not so stupid as to openly support Russia. Why should they do that?”

“Obviously, China is not so stupid as to openly support Russia. Why should they do that? They of course have their own political aims and goals and are quite happy that, after a relatively long time, the United States has to prioritise Europe again. After all, for the past 10 or 15 years the United States have been pivoting to Asia. Now, at least to some extent, the United States have to look at Europe once again.

"It simply makes sense for China not to try to change this situation very much. Therefore, I imagine that they are relatively comfortable with the current situation, as long as it doesn’t go in a totally crazy direction. They probably realise that, in the long-term, Russia will need to be much more dependent on Chinese business and military support.”

How concerned should we be about China possibly increasing its influence vis-à-vis Russia? In terms of strategic concerns for the West, would greater Chinese access to Russian resources be a game changer, or anything of that sort?

Photo: ČTK / AP / Uncredited

“I don’t think so. It obviously means that we cannot use Russia as a potential ally against China. That is probably off the table for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, I don’t think that this will provide some sort of extremely strong advantage for China, simply because the Russian economy is relatively backward.

"Yes, they do have a lot of resources. That’s true. But the Russians were trading their resources with them, at least to some extent, already before this war. Now it will probably be more pronounced, but I think that the best that Russia can give to China in economic terms is that it is still a relatively large market.”

Given these realities, should Europe just continue to focus on supporting Ukraine, or should it strive for reaching some common position between Russia and Ukraine?

“First of all, I think we need to state clearly that there is no one Europe. The positions of Poland, France, Czechia and Germany for example are, I would say, relatively different. I am not saying that they are antagonistic to one another, but there are certainly different in some ways.

“If we can get rid of a strong Russia, it is a great bonus for us.”

"In the case of Eastern European EU members it obviously makes sense to push for a Ukrainian victory, at least a defensive victory, as much as possible. If we can get rid of a strong Russia, it is a great bonus for us. Obviously, this is not as much of a pressing issue for Germany or France.

"If I were a German or French politician, I would logically not be threatened by Russia. This is because Russia is quite far away and it is pretty clear that their military power is not so threatening to me. From this point of view I would say that there are at least to some extent two slightly different parts of Europe, so I don’t think that we can find any one single position.

Vladimir Putin | Photo: ČTK / AP / Uncredited

"Eventually I think that the European position will be some kind of a compromise between these two positions. It obviously makes sense to support Ukraine to a large extent. The question is: Are we willing to, for example, increase our arms production? This is because, if this war is not going to end within the next two or three months, we will need to ensure that Ukraine has a sufficient amount of ammunition and heavy equipment for the coming months.”

Europe might be eventually faced with a situation where it will have to make difficult decisions. Ukraine, of course, wants to join the EU and it has received candidate status. Then there is of course Georgia, again, in a region which may become destabilised. Is there some sort of red line past which you think Europe should not go?

“Look, if you defeat Russia totally, then it makes sense to tell Ukraine or anybody else: ‘Join NATO, or join the European Union.’ That is because there would no longer be anyone on the other side of the hill who would shoot at you. However, if Russia is able to survive this campaign as a great power, not a superpower because they are not that, then I think that for the foreseeable future there will not be an offer for Ukraine to join NATO.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

"I am also relatively hesitant about its prospects for EU membership. Not so much because of the Russians, but for reasons of economic disparity. Therefore, I can imagine Ukraine getting some sort of special status vis-à-vis the European Union, something like a special partnership. However, I think that membership in the EU, given the economic conditions in the country, is quite unlikely.”

Looking at this conflict in general, is there something that you noticed that hasn’t been mentioned much by experts or the media?

“There are plenty of striking issues. You said, for example, that the Russians performed on a sub-par level when compared with initial expectations. Ukraine, meanwhile, performed much better.

"However, the general lesson that I see from this conflict is that war is still possible and that you need huge reserves – reserves of manpower and equipment. That’s because, if the war prolongs itself, it becomes a huge drain on manpower and equipment. And without reserves you won’t be able to survive.”

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