The Rules-Based Order is at Stake in Ukraine
An Interview with Former Ukrainian Ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko
Andriy Shevchenko, former Ukrainian Ambassador to Canada says that we can look to history to predict the outcome of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine. Poland, Finland, and Afghanistan are examples that might suggest Russia will need to pull back from Ukraine. Putin’s desire to invade was not taken seriously by the Russian public, he relied on poor quality intelligence, and no serious military strategies were ever designed for such an operation, because almost nobody thought they would ever be used. These are some of the reasons behind what appears to be a miscalculation in Ukraine. Ukraine, in Shevchenko’s words, has done something extraordinary in resisting Russia’s invasion. The world underestimated the resolve and resilience of Ukraine, while overestimating the weight of Russia’s military might.
Its important to remember that the war in Ukraine is not merely the result of Putin. Most of the Russian public supports the war and war crimes have been committed by Russian generals, officers, and soldiers. Putin merely reflects the state of Russian society as well as the Russian ruling class. The Russian threat will likely persist long after Putin. Shevchenko states that Ukraine and the West can create space for change and reform within Russia, through acting in concert to support Ukraine and impose and uphold sanctions on Russia to exhaust their ability to wage war.
Canada, in particular, has a special relationship with Ukraine and can use its excellent reputation to act as an example to other nations on how to best support Ukraine, and encourage cooperation within international coalitions. Ukraine has historically seen Canada as a reliable ally and continues to do so. Shevchenko closes by reiterating that this fight is not just about Ukraine, but rather, for the future of countries like Canada, which benefit and rely on the rules-based international order.
“I just want Canada to know that we feel we fight, not just for us, but for Canada as well.”
How can Russia’s invasion of Ukraine be understood within the greater context of Ukrainian-Russian relations?
One-hundred years ago, there were six empires in Europe—five of them are now gone, in one way or another. Russia is the only one remaining and is trying to recreate its empire. It’s suicidal for Russia. It will never bring back the Russian Empire the way they remember the Russian Empire. They will have to pull back, just like they had to pull back from Poland, Afghanistan, and Finland. They will have to pull back from Ukraine—it’s just a matter of time. Russia and its neighbors have a big price to pay for these policies. Ukraine is essential for the Russian imperialistic project and its much bigger than mere national pride. Russia wants Ukraine for its resources and geostrategic significance. As a democracy with many freedoms, Ukraine also poses a threat to Putin and the Kremlin. It is a reminder, or a suggestion to the Russian people that there are other methods to govern a country. Russia simply cannot afford having an independent, free, and democratic Ukraine next door. In many ways, we are running away from the Soviet Union—from the Soviet empire. We did that during the Orange Revolution eight years ago. Russia is trying to bring us back, under its rule, and we have a very good feeling that we will finally sort this out to secure a long period of stability and prosperity, not just for us, but for the whole region.
What calculations do you think Putin made regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Was this a miscalculation? How effective has the global response and sanctions regime been?
Why did Putin get this so wrong? To start, he relied on poor sources of information. It looks like only a small portion of the Russian population took Putin’s desire to wage a full-scale war against Ukraine seriously. Many of his people further down the chain of command pretended that they were creating serious strategic plans to invade Ukraine, because they never thought they would have to implement them. From the very beginning, they were so out of touch with reality that they had no chance of success.
Second, and most importantly, I think Putin has been unsuccessful because Ukraine has been doing something extraordinary. It’s not just the bravery of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but rather, this amazing solidarity we have seen between people of all walks of life. All of Ukraine has united to fight this war. This level of solidarity and unity is quite unusual. Again though, it is not simply that Putin merely miscalculated—many people around the globe underestimated the Ukrainian resilience and overestimated the weight of Russia’s military might. There is a lot of homework to do for those in the strategic planning and intelligence communities. None of this changes the major conclusion though, which is that in the 21st century, the truth has a much better chance to prevail on a global scale.
Overall, the response has been effective. We are very grateful to the West, as a collective, for acting in concert to impose and uphold sanctions, as well as for the military aid that has been provided to Ukraine. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that many Ukrainians feel that much of this help is too little too late—not enough and not at the time when we need it.
I would rather discuss how we should cooperate in the future. I think by now, it is very clear how the world can support Ukraine in this fight. Weapons are by far the most important priority because it’s a matter of our physical existence—we are facing an existential threat.
Second, we need to exhaust the Russian war machine—the latest sanctions introduced by the European Union towards Russia are so important. Third, we need financial support to keep us running and breathing. Weapons, by far though, are the biggest priority. They are important for our survival right now. There has been a range of responses from our Western friends and allies. Ukraine appreciates those countries that have taken a lead.
How is Russia leveraging the information domain for influence? What can we learn from the Russian playbook on influencing through mass media to credibly counter false narratives?
I think the biggest conclusion is that the notorious Russian propaganda machine doesn’t work that well. Russia has completely lost the information war on a global scale. It’s quite clear that no one believes Russia outside Russian borders. We overestimated, not only Russia’s ability to wage a military campaign, but their ability to wage an information war. The only place where Russian propaganda truly succeeds is inside Russia. The Russian government has very skilfully poisoned the brains of its own citizens and that has come with very heavy consequences. It’s important to understand that it’s not simply Putin waging a war against Ukraine and the West. Unfortunately, the Russian people have played a roll too. When we look at the polls and see that 87% of the Russian population supports this invasion into Ukraine. Another 82-83%, say that Poland should be next. That pretty much reflects the reality on the ground.
Putin is not necessarily the source of these issues—he is a reflection of the state of Russian society, and most certainly a reflection of the state of the Russian ruling class. That means that this Russian threat will be with us for years and possibly generations to come—even after Putin is gone. We are facing a long-term threat here and that’s another reason why there is no time for half measures. We should take this challenge very seriously, in the most strategic way possible. The ban on foreign media presence in Russia does not change a lot on the ground. The vast majority of the population relies heavily on official Russian propaganda for their news and wouldn’t really care much about what The Economist, FT, CBC, or CNN has to say from their headquarters in Moscow. Our hope is that eventually the refrigerator will win over the TV set. It happened before in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union collapsed. I think for now, we are too far away from the point at which hunger, or food prices will force the population to alter their behaviour or opinions. I would not waste time and energy on trying to educate the Russian public. That will happen in other ways.
For now, I think it’s much more important to focus on other strategies. We must make sure that we regain control over our territory and feel safe. We need to move forward and plan our destiny. I think it’s very important that Western policy is consistent when it comes to sanctions and applying pressure on Russia. It is very important that it is understood that we will be united in levying sanctions against Russia, and against the Kremlin—even after our victory in this war, even after this war is over. In Ukraine, we dream of raising at least one generation that doesn’t have to deal with a direct existential threat from Russia.
I think some of us might feel disappointed or frustrated that the changes in Russia aren’t coming as quickly as we would like them to, but I’m sure they will come. Even the sanctions that were introduced after 2014 worked quite efficiently. In 2013, Russia’s GDP was about $16,000 USD per capita, in 2020, it went down to $10,000—a 40% drop in annual income for every Russian. That’s a lot of damage. Russia still has a surplus, because of these unconventional high prices on oil and gas. We should ensure that this oil and gas embargo is global. That is one way we can exhaust the Russian war machine and create the space for change and reform inside the country.
I do not expect Putin to make rational decisions. He might change his mind, if anything, we should push him in that direction. I don’t believe that we can find a way to change his thinking though—it will either change, Putin will be removed, die, or be killed. But again, it is naïve to think that it’s only Putin that creates these problems and tensions. War crimes have been committed by Russian soldiers, officers, and generals. This has been accompanied by anti-Western xenophobic hysteria all over Russia. We are dealing with a much more difficult challenge than just one mad, outrageous individual. Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that.
As a middle power, how can Canada optimize the support and assistance being provided to Ukraine? What do you think our greatest strengths are? How can these strengths be leveraged efficiently Given our other commitments?
Canada can set an example. You were one of the first countries to adopt the Magnitsky law. Canada provides Ukraine with more financial support than most other countries. The Canadian decision to seize Russian assets and ensure they go towards repaying for damages inflicted on Ukraine was also very important. I think Canada could and should use its reputation to act as an example to other nations on what can be done to aid Ukraine. We hope that Canada will use its authority and its very good reputation on the international stage to tell the world the truth about what’s happening in Ukraine and help encourage the international coalition.
Canada has a very special relationship with Ukraine. You were the first country in the West to recognize our independence, and you helped our country get into the WTO. We expect that Canada will take a leading role in advocating for our NATO membership. We hope the U.S and Canada will be helpful in keeping together this international coalition. I think some people in Ukraine might feel that Canada tends to make eleventh hour decisions, but most of the time we know that you will make the right decisions—even if at the very last moment.
I think it is important for Canada to realize that this fight is not just about Ukraine, it’s also about the future of countries like Canada—not just because you’re a neighbor to Russia, like us, but because we both rely on the international rules-based order. It pleases us to see that Canada is so supportive. Its not just because of the extraordinary Ukrainian-Canadian community, but because the wider Canadian public understands that supporting Ukraine is the right thing to do. I just want Canada to know that we feel we fight, not just for us, but for Canada as well.
Ambassador Andriy Shevchenko is a prominent Ukrainian politician, diplomat, journalist, and civil activist. In 2015-21 he served as the Ukrainian Ambassador to Canada. Prior to that, he was a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, winning seats in 2006, 2007, and 2012. He served as the Chairman of the Free Speech Committee and the 1st Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Committee.
Andriy is the author of the Law on Access to Public Information and was an active participant of the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14. As a seasoned journalist, he helped to establish the 5th Channel, the first 24/7-news channel in Ukraine, and became the face of the 2004 Orange Revolution for viewers.