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Expectations and understandings of the war in Ukraine: Scandinavian perspective

Expectations and understandings of the war in Ukraine: Scandinavian perspective

Ilmari Käihkö – associate professor of war studies at the Swedish Defence University, a visiting scholar at the Aleksanteri institute at Helsinki University and a veteran of the Finnish Defence Forces, told about Scandinavian perspetive on the war in Ukraine.

Ilmari Käihkö compares the russian invasion of Ukraine with Swedish and Finnish forces that spent 20 years in Afghanistan (2001 – 2021). Russia did not understand the socio-political context in Ukraine, just like Sweden and Finland failed to do so in Afghanistan. Russia deals not only with the resistance of the Ukrainian Army but with the whole Ukrainian society. If Russia had succeeded in occupying Ukraine, there would have been an insurgency. Fortunately, things didn’t turn out that way. 

By late August, the situation was quite difficult. The successful Ukrainian offensive in Kharkiv in September changed a lot. The Ukrainian victory near Kyiv in February-March was the first concrete evidence that Russia would not be able to achieve its ambiguous maximalist course: a puppet regime in Kyiv, a sphere of control over Ukraine and Belarus and a renewed claim to great power status. After just five weeks, it became clear that Russia will not win this war. However, this did not necessarily mean that Russia would lose this war. The offensive in Kharkiv has changed the narrative: in the US and Europe, there is now a discussion that Russia may lose this war. Before the Kharkiv offensive, there was a question, “Would Ukraine be able to get back the occupied 20% of its territory?” Now there is a question, “Are these gains in Kharkiv tactical or strategic?” Speaker thinks that Ukraine can hold liberated territories. 

Still, Ukraine’s success depends on not only Ukrainian will to continue the war, but also Western support. Speaker is not sure what Russia can do to change the current situation. They have a lack of manpower and motivation, and less quality weapons in comparison to the one’s provided by Western allies (like HIMARS). Optimists say that Russians might run out of ammunition by the end of the year with this kind of consumption; others say that they can continue the war for 24 months. In the same manner, optimists believe the “partial” mobilization of forces has already failed. Others take the threat of a massive influx of Russian forces in Ukraine more seriously. 

Regardless, if Putin cannot win on the battlefield, he seems to have opted to exhaust Ukrainians and the West. He does not seem to have devised a better strategy, but prolongs the war expecting diminishing support for Ukraine because of inflation and rising energy prices. The Kharkiv offensive also affected the Russian narrative, which says that supporting Ukraine raises prices and inflation. 

The political will aspect of Western military support is in part related to the red lines that should not be crossed. The Bucha massacre is an example of such a red line. Before Bucha the West supplied only so-called defensive weapons, and afterward – heavy weapons like tanks (although not yet the most modern ones). The West does not provide long-range HIMARS missiles, so red lines still exist. Western countries are balancing trying to avoid WWIII.  

Europe is very dependent on Russian energy, and this dependency will not disappear altogether. The winter will be tough even for Europe. 

Western commentators are very critical of European military capabilities. The vast majority of the military assistance has come from the US. Europe does not produce quantities of military material for Ukraine and does not have enough in storage. For historical reasons, Finland has much equipment and ammunition in storage that is immediately useful for Ukraine because of its past status as a militarily unallied small state next to Russia. At the same time, the decision to provide Ukraine with a lot of weapons is politically difficult because of the threat of a Russian response on Finland when the country is not yet a member of NATO. Nevertheless, politicians should take into account that the fate of Ukraine has great influence on the security in Europe. 

In 2014 – 2015 the West did not support Ukraine enough, so the West has much responsibility for the current situation. At the same time, Ilmari Käihkö says that during his field research in Ukraine during 2017 – 2020, many people in Ukraine did not seem to care much about the war. 

Speaker is not 100% sure that Western countries would support Ukraine’s maximalist course on taking back control over all territories, including Crimea. According to international law, Crimea is Ukraine, but the Russian and pro-Russian population has increased during the past eight years. Finally, there is also the question of nuclear weapons. For some analysts, it should not be discussed at all. At the same time, many researchers of Russia argue that Putin has a maximalist course: he will never let Ukraine go free. Logically he would then use all means, including nuclear weapons. The situation is risky for Ukraine as the US has shown no readiness to cover Ukraine with a nuclear umbrella. A nuclear weapon used by Russia would probably be responded to, but with conventional non-nuclear means.

What would be the new axis of evil? Russia in WWIII: who against whom?

Russia has become really internationally isolated because of this war. The kind of allies they have are North Korea, and Iran. Both of these countries are against the US. They are friends because they have a common enemy. China is exploiting that kind of situation but most likely will not go into WWIII on the Russian side. Russia will be alone. This is all the more important because of economic sanctions, which Russia will have trouble managing with.

What is the role of the information in this war?

Information has a central role. Zelenskiy is very good in this regard. He has great speeches like Churchill. He creates trust in the West that Ukraine can win this war. If the West does not believe in victory, the support will decrease. Ukraine has surprised the West in a very positive way, and Russia has surprised time and again with poor decisions. Russian propaganda is massive, but they are really bad at communicating, while Ukraine’s communication is much better. The West trusts Ukraine.

What would be the ultimate demand for Ukraine from the West?

The West is not in a position to demand anything from Ukraine, but if support is not given to Ukraine like in 2014, that de-facto forces Ukraine to make concessions, to negotiate. It is a very unpleasant fact. 

Would you consider that there would be higher polarization between countries and systems after the war?

Russia will not be defeated militarily because they have nuclear weapons as a response to invasion. Future isolation of Russia makes sense, but it is not the most positive way we could deal with it (like with the Soviet Union during the Cold War) because dependencies are much greater now. For instance, how would we deal without Russian energy? We will have to coexist somehow with an aggressive country like Russia, which does not respect international law. It raises worries about world polarization. 

The concept of the national state is 300 years old. Should we think about something new as the UN does not work, NATO is not working as it was expected. Maybe the concept of state is not working as it was expected. 

The ongoing war demonstrates that we do need interstate cooperation and institutions. Ukrainian decision-makers say that Ukraine is fighting for European values, and this is very important for Europe. These values are above the national ones, and they unite us. The EU is the best peace project in the whole world today. If the UN does not work, on the regional level, we can do other things, and the EU is a good model here. 

How the Russian – Ukrainian war influences the political context in Sweden and Finland. 

Swedish elections were held last Sunday. The bad news for Ukraine is that it never impacted the elections. Ukraine was not in the parties’ programs; it was a local issue. In Finland, Ukraine does not considerably influence the political context too.

Did the Russian – Ukrainian war influence the decision of Sweden and Finland to join NATO? How come Sweden and Finland cooperated that much together on joining NATO with the different history behind their neutrality status? 

During the Cold War, Finland could not join NATO because it would have really offended the Soviet Union. Here is where Finlandisation comes from: you are formally sovereign but can not make decisions. Sweden also realized that they must also stay outside of NATO for the sake of Finland. If they had become a NATO member, the Soviet Union would have demanded Finland to become part of the Warsaw Pact. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Finnish people changed their minds about NATO, forcing the Finnish politicians to change their minds, which happened really fast. Then the Finnish politicians talked to Swedish politicians, who also changed their minds and had to convince the Swedish people to change their minds. 

Is it true that the interest in Ukraine as a part of security alliances might increase because of Ukraine’s huge experience of large-scale fighting? 

Finnish volunteers say that the Ukrainian military is really bad compared to the Finnish military. What Ukraine does now is different from what the Finnish army is training for. The military experience of one country is not automatically transferable to the others. For example, the Finnish army is more trained for fighting in the forests. The exchange of experience is important. At the war’s end, Ukraine will have a massive military, which will be needed for years as Ukraine will in all likelihood not join NATO soon.