Serhii Plokhii, history professor, director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute
Ukraine’s victory will be in the preservation of the nation, the statehood, the identity, and the freedom of choice
20.06.2024 19:06

Professor Serhiy Plokhiy is one of the most renowned and celebrated Ukrainian-American historians, director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. At the invitation of the Ukrainian Institute in Sweden, Mr Plokhii introduced his book "The Gates of Europe: a History of Ukraine", told the Swedes about our country, the Russo-Ukrainian war, and answered questions. The event took place at the Army Museum in Stockholm.

The importance of the Ukraine Peace Summit, what makes Ukraine strong, what can be considered our victory and Russia's defeat – Professor Plokhii revealed this all in an interview exclusive to Ukrinform

- Thank you for your activity, for being a Ukrainian voice in the West, an ambassador of the "Secure Sky" campaign. You are a very powerful voice in the world. You received a very sincere, warm reception, and was heard with extraordinary attention. There was out-and-out silence where you were talking about Russia’s genocide, about the destruction of Ukrainian cities. You’re lecturing all over the world. How audiences differ in different countries?

- What unites all countries now is interest in Ukraine. This is what brings people to attend my lectures. But what attracts people most is, indeed, what is happening in Ukraine, that Ukraine is fighting, that it has not laid down its arms as the world expected in the first days and weeks of the war. This is what all countries have in common. I also noticed that a significant majority of people - as, for example, today in Stockholm - are friendly to Ukraine, which is a plus and a minus both at the same time. This adds to the atmosphere, makes meetings special and conversation more interesting on the one hand, but makes it less possible to persuade people with a different opinion on the other.

I never choose audiences. In the USA too, for example, there are critics who come with sharp questions. An audience of skeptics, I think, is even more important than that of followers.

What I saw here in Sweden today is either a culture of not asking critical questions, or this meeting brought together proponents of Ukraine. I really appreciate it.

- We are meeting with you on the first day of the Summit on Peace in Ukraine, in Switzerland. It is quite representative - 100 delegations, 92 countries, 8 international organizations. How much does Biden's absence affect the status of the event? If he were there, would the gathering’s outcomes have been different? Which ones?

- In my understanding, his failure to show up will not affect the Summit’s results. Some things, and we know about it already, some joint documents have been agreed upon. They were redrafted several times, there were debates, a common platform was developed around which to meet. I believe if Biden was there personally, a certain number of people would have attended, in addition to those who are already there. Maybe another joint photo would have come out. But I don't think it would have had any effect on the result. The USA is represented by the vice president. I am convinced that the American President shares what she says. So in terms of content, I don't think it matters. Everything was discussed beforehand -- with Biden and with other leaders who did not come. Participation of countries, high-level representation are what matters. The rest will be forgotten tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, and the documents, the platform are what everyone is working for, that's what will remain.

- Do you see any historical parallels with the Peace Summit? What analogies can be drawn?

- The closest parallels, which may not be obvious, are the Allied World War II Conferences. Those we know well are Tehran, Yalta, Potsdam. None of the conferences was attended by the aggressor country. Allies in the fight against Germany were represented at these conferences. Today's conference is grander in terms of representation and the number of attendees; it is of a public nature. But the meaning is the same - Ukraine's allies came together to draft a common vision of peace.

Different eras, different circumstances, different conferences, but they are common in that countries unite to stop the aggression and to deliberate about what the world should be like after the war is over.

- In Ukraine, opinions are voiced that the Summit would not bring the results as expected or even bring the opposite result: Ukraine will be forced to agree to a ceasefire, a truce. There are also opinions that it would be better to provide us with weapons.

- Firstly, weapons emerge as a result of talks. Weapons emerge where there is a common vision of the future that is now being developed at various forums and conferences. This Summit is one of the most representative in the world. So the view that there is something better than this forum is a very naive view. Without one, there would be no other.

The Summit represents the views of other participating countries. It gives a chance to hash out positions, to generate a common one. This is what makes the importance of the event. People come with own positions, maybe similar, but differing. They debate on them, find common ground. This is a significant consequence of this Summit.

If there is an understanding that the Summit was convened in order to end the war here and now, it is simply unrealistic. One side in this war and its allies are represented. Wars end up either with a victory of one side, or with the achievement of some kind of compromise. What we heard from Moscow the other day just cuts off all the chances and, actually, pulls the rug out from under those who argued that a compromise could be reached on the basis of what Vladimir Putin proposed. It's not just about keeping what has been captured, but about "surrender more to us and then give up the resistance." I think that this Summit will be a significant step forward to developing a common platform. We have to give due credit to Vladimir Putin and the statement he made on the eve of the Peace Summit for making an important sign in Ukraine’s favor. The aggressor has very explicitly demonstrated who he is. Following such a statement, it is much easier for Ukraine to argue and defend its position.

- Does this statement by Putin signify Russia's weakness?

- Definitely yes. This manifests inadequate understanding of a person who has been in power for 25 years. This creates a number of errors that are clearly contrary to Russia’s best interests. No one will ever argue that the war went to Putin's plan. Such statements really exclude Russia as a legitimate negotiator. And this is not favorable for Russia. Empires, autocracies have advantages in terms of resource mobilization. At the same time, they have significant disadvantages in that bad decisions are made very often. This doesn’t mean to say that this will make Ukraine feel any better, but that Putin continues driving Russia into a dead end.

- Has the world realized that Russia cannot be trusted or negotiated with?

- The world, its significant part, would certainly like come to terms with Putin. This was the view shared by Germany and France. Those countries offered themselves as negotiators in this process. However, the posture of Putin, who started an all-out war of aggression, who was unwilling to agree on anything and continues with such statements, turns potential negotiators into proponents of Ukraine and opponents of Russia. Putin once again knocked trump cards out of the hands of those who don’t mind coming to an agreement with him.

- The longer the war, the more abstract the concept of victory. What can be considered a victory for Ukraine and a defeat for Russia?

- Victory can have many dimensions. We live in a world in which our ideas about victory are shaped by May 1945, the elimination of Nazi Germany, etc. This is the key paradigm that exists.

The world has changed since May 1945. It became nuclear capable, the rules of the game and understanding of a victory have changed. I would like to draw attention to the end of the Cold War, which was certainly won by the United States and its allies. And it’s clear that the Soviet Union was definitely defeated. This understanding of a victory differs from the one we are associating with May 1945. We have to think in terms of whether or not there will be a victory.

I would say that victory is a multi-layered phenomenon. In an environment where not only Ukraine’s independence, but the very existence of the state of Ukraine, the Ukrainian nation have become the target for aggression, and this issue has not yet been ultimately resolved. The preservation of the nation, statehood, identity, and the freedom of choice - this is the pivotal part. This is how we should think about winning. Compromise on any of these key components will be a defeat, let alone victory.

There will likely be a compromise on aspects that do not affect the prime goals. It may not be the peace we want, or it will not be achieved right now, not immediately. But there can be a qualified victory. There are victories, as in boxing, by knockout or knockdown. Such was the victory in 1945. And there are victories by points, just like the Cold War was won.

So I think we should try and win by knockdown, but victory by points is still a victory. Because this is the preservation of our existence, independence and a security guarantee for the future. Theoretically, the war, in the sense of hostilities, could end today. But this would not mean an end to the war. Let's recall how it was in 2015. Then there was not an end, but a postponement of the war. Such scenarios are also possible.

Over the past century, there have been many different models of victory and defeat. However, the key – for both victory and defeat – is what happens on the battlefield. There should be no illusions that if something goes wrong on the battlefield, the Summit in Switzerland will surprisingly fix it. Diplomats draw up the results of what militaries have won or lost at the front line.

- What are your thoughts about whether or not this Great War could have been avoided?

- It seemed to us that the war was managed to be avoided. I want to emphasize that Ukrainian victory will mean the victory and independence of several other countries that are not immediately involved in this war. Ukrainian victory will mean the weakening of Russia in Eastern Europe as a whole. Today, Moldova is a candidate for EU membership in consequence of Ukraine becoming a candidate for EU membership. We started this in motion.

Ukraine's victory will also be of significance for Belarus. There is a potentiality that certain countries will gain independence without a bloody war.

We are fighting a war not only for ourselves. And we could have other options. Nothing in history is absolutely deterministic. We must never be fatalistic. But a war was pretty likely, considering the collapse of other empires. And we proved unable to avoid it. 

- You always monitor the front line situation. How has it changed throughout this year?

- This year began with two questions: what will Western aid be like and how will war mobilization proceed in Ukraine. We have an answer to the former question – the aid is delayed, but it is still coming in. We do not have an answer to the question about how the mobilization will end up. But it seems to me like the most troubled period, the Rubicon, the equator has been passed this year. The Russian offensive has been brought to a halt. Russia has most probably run out of strength, but we have the strength in place.

Lots of issues about the progression of the war are postponed till the next year. There is one more issue, specifically about how to survive the next winter season. This issue is going to be more pressing than it was in the previous war years. We will hopefully build up enough strength to tackle this situation in 2025.

- What should we message to the West?

-  We currently need to communicate, with intensity, that Ukraine is fighting not only for itself, that the future of the world is at stake. And if, God forbid, Kyiv is defeated, this will entail very serious changes for the future of Europe and all of the world.

The key messages should be about what is happening actually. Not only is Ukraine fighting for itself, but it contributes more to this fight than anyone else. The West must defend itself in this war.

- How much does the West realize this?

- If it didn’t, we would not receive support.

- In interviews, you give optimistic predictions about Russian disintegration...

- This prism of the collapse of empires gives me optimism for the future. The disintegration of the Russian Empire began during the First World War. Then Finland, Poland and others became independent. However, there were turnings back as well: the Baltic Sea countries were recaptured. There is an overall trend there. Given this, one must appreciate that a lot depends on the processes going on in Russia itself, and, of course, on us, as well.

Empires come through periods of rise and fall. The time of the empire’s fall is most suitable for colonies, current and former, to consolidate their statehood.

But here a question arises: how effective were our attempts to consolidate our statehood at the time the empire was weak - between 1991 and 2014. I do not agree with those claiming that those were wasted years. If that were the case, Ukraine would not exist today. But I also share the doubts of those who inquire: had we used all the opportunities that came our way, how had we used this time that could probably have been put to much better use.

The Poles did better feeling the imminent fall that would come someday. They began knocking on the door of NATO. Now they are protected.

There are questions to be put to the then elites, but not only. Elites are like the people they lead. We remember what our reaction to NATO was. We then lost our time, our chance.

- Since February 2022, many people in Ukraine have switched over from speaking Russian to Ukrainian. But many continue speaking Russian, especially in Kyiv. What’s your opinion about why even this brutal war hasn’t become an argument in favor of one’s native tongue?

- Ukraine has found a way how to fight, to being bilingual and multicultural. Had we failed to find a way to a common identity across the differences, we wouldn't exist anymore, or would exist within different national borders. Historical heritage, cultural and linguistic practices have a long-term development impact and are very conservative. The Ukrainian language was losing its position during centuries, not decades, and so we must be realistic about our expectations.

Today, there is a movement toward speaking Ukrainian, a surge of Ukrainian culture has been observed, and that is the way the Ukrainians are responding to the war. This is not a State-imposed process, but it arises from the grass-roots level. This is a model of creation, a model for Ukrainization that does not cause division in society. This is what helps us sustain without undermining our capabilities. That said, we must be aware that we are aspiring to expedite the processes that have lasted for centuries.

- One of your narratives says that international partners help and support only the strong ones. What makes Ukraine strong?

- Ukraine has enough strength to inspire allies to support. Tangible assistance began coming in when Ukraine had been able to defend Kyiv and defeat Moscow outside of the capital city. At that time it became obvious that there is a State, there is an army, that there is a nation that supports fight for freedom and independence. And Western embassies returned to Kyiv. This signifies that the one who was able to defend itself is strong enough and can count on support. And the more Ukraine is proving this to be the case, the more potent the aid.

- You travel many countries. What is your most favorite place to visit? Where is your place of strength?

- I was in Kyiv and Zaporizhzhia in May. Then I felt that Ukraine was in a crisis, perhaps the most severe crisis since the time the war began. But I came back from Ukraine, surprisingly to myself, with greater strength and energy to fight. I cannot show my place of strength on the map of Ukraine. But I can show it on the world map. And this is Ukraine.

Interviewed by Natalia Maksymenko

Photo via Ukrinform and The Ukrainians

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