Families carry their belongings through the Zosin border crossing in Poland after fleeing Ukraine. © UNHCR/Chris Melzer

How Russian War Crimes Changed the Conflict in Ukraine

As Russian forces retreated from areas around Kyiv, the whole world became aware of the scope of atrocity crimes committed in areas under Russian control. Meanwhile, the brutal bombardment of cities like Mariupol in the south of Ukraine continues. And civilians are being targeted in deadly airstrikes, included a crowded train station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, which was crammed with civilians seeking to flee that region ahead of a Russian military advance.

As my guest today, Dr. Liana Fix, explains, these apparent war crimes will meaningfully impact both the trajectory of the conflict and any progress towards some sort of partial truce or ceasefire.  Liana Fix is the program director of the International Affairs department at Koerber Foundation, which is a Berlin-based think tank.  She discusses the latest developments in the conflict in Ukraine and how Russian war crimes are changing the contours of this war.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:08] Before we start, I am starting again to record episodes live via Twitter spaces. This one was not recorded live, but future episodes you will hear in this show will be. I really like recording episodes live because it gives me an opportunity to hear from you, the listener, and what questions are on your mind towards the guests that I host. It’s an interactive opportunity, which is kind of rare in podcasting, so it’s a great opportunity if you want to be part of the show. Simply follow me on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg to be alerted of when these episodes are being recorded live.

Why has Putin Withdrawn Russian Forces from the Surrounding Areas of Ukraine’s Capital Kyiv?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:05] As we speak, Russian forces have withdrawn from areas around Kyiv, suggesting that Putin’s initial aim of overthrowing the Ukrainian government and installing a compliant puppet regime is not achievable. So, what do the latest troop movements and other developments on the ground right now suggest to you about how Putin may recalibrate his war aims at this point?

Liana Fix [00:03:31] Yes, I think we should not be too optimistic about what exactly this means for Russia’s war aims. I mean, first of all, it is certainly a great development, as it shows that Ukraine’s resistance has resulted in Russian withdrawal so this is really an incredible achievement on the Ukrainian side which no one would have expected after the first days of the war. So, this is really something where we can say this is evidence that Ukraine’s resistance, Western weapon deliveries do help, and it makes sense to continue to support Ukraine in its resistance. But sort of the other side of the argument would be to say, ‘Well, look, this is Russia’s weakness right now, and Ukraine is on a safe way to victory.’ And I think we should be careful not to become too war optimistic here. I mean, in the same way as the Kremlin has been war optimistic before the outbreak of the war. We should remain very sober in our assessment because it is clear that Russia regroups, that Russia tries to consolidate its forces and to focus those on the South and the east. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ukraine is already within the reach of victory. And what is especially troublesome is the news of the atrocities coming out from villages around Kyiv, but also reports about possibly the same kind of atrocities taking place in Mariupol and other areas of the Russian occupation, because it means that Russian occupation is not just sort of a political question in terms of who is the mayor of the village and who is he loyal to but it really is a question about the safety of Ukrainians living on this territory, and it makes President Zelensky’s negotiation position if negotiations with Russia can be taken seriously in any way but if the Ukrainians want to try to go on with it, they definitely should. It makes it more complicated because any kind of ideas about freezing of territorial statuses will imply the risk of atrocities committed against the Ukrainian population.

What is Russia’s way of warfare?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:10] So, you’re saying the strategic logic of these atrocities committed against civilians by the Russian forces serves to put pressure on Zelensky when it might come to questions around negotiating territorial concessions?

Liana Fix [00:06:31] I think the message from these atrocities has different, a couple of dimensions. I mean, the first I mentioned is certainly that this is part of Russia’s way of warfare that we’ve already seen in Chechnya and in Syria. So, this is nothing new. The second dimension is that it is meant to send a signal and to break resistance in Ukraine and Ukrainian villages. And the third dimension to it is to sort of underline—it is a very cruel and very brutal translation of the rhetoric and the ideology coming from Moscow—which says that Ukraine has to be liberated from Nazism. And now the propaganda also says that Nazism has sort of in quotation marks, obviously from my side has gone deeper and the Ukrainian population needs to be liberated and purged, and this is basically translated by Russian soldiers on the ground. So, the message here by these atrocities—I mean, first of all, it is just part of Russia’s way of warfare. It is to intimidate the population, to break resistance. And at the same time, it is also to message towards Kyiv. Look what we are capable of. We will not back down. We will use all methods available to achieve our aims.

How has Russia’s strategy changed over the course of their invasion of Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:57] As we speak there are multiple reports that Russian forces are now seeking more deliberately to wage an attack to maintain control over parts of eastern Ukraine. You know, parts of Donetsk and Luhansk that they were not able to capture back in 2014. What does this suggest to you about the sort of territorial ambitions of Russian forces in Ukraine right now?

Liana Fix [00:08:31] I think the territorial ambitions of Russia at the beginning have been very wide. So, at the beginning, the idea was to conduct a shock and awe campaign in all parts of Ukraine. I think this was to the surprise of many observers who always thought, ‘Well, if Russia continues, they would try first to fight in Donetsk and Luhansk to get control of the territory within the administrative boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk because those territories under control by the separatists were just a small part of administrative boundaries.’ But what the beginning of the war demonstrated is that Russia’s ambitions really covered the entirety of Ukraine, and we still see it right now with attacks on Lviv and other cities, also in the western part of Ukraine. What this sort of regrouping now to the east and south means is basically the acknowledgment that Russia’s forces have militarily been overstretched and this does not mean that Russia’s political aims are limited to Donetsk and Luhansk because then they would not have to stop this war at all if it’s really important because it could have started from the beginning in eastern Ukraine but it is more of a change to the approach of the war that Russia has more possibilities now in the east and in the south to gain territory and to stick to the territory and from there continue its broader aims towards Ukraine. So, I don’t think it is a change of political aims. The political aim still remains to have Ukraine under control politically, economically, militarily. But it is a change of approach, seeing that Russia has been quite weak in the north and now tries to establish a base in the east and in the south.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:40] OK, so do you not believe it’s the case then that, you know, having suffered this defeat from taking Kyiv over the last several weeks that Russia has recalibrated its political aims from the overthrow of the Zelensky government to something different?

Liana Fix [00:11:00] I think the overthrow of the Zelensky government was part of the broader aim to get Ukraine under control and if that is dropped for the moment it does not mean that sort of the overall aim of exerting control over Ukraine has changed. And having ground in the east and the south basically, would give Russia the basis to at some point if Ukraine is not able to fight Russia back in the east of the south, it gives Russia the opportunity to stay there, to pause, to regroup and then at some point later in the future to try another attack on other parts of Ukraine. And we still see attacks in the west of Ukraine so it’s not that Russia has dropped all military actions towards other parts of Ukraine. So, there is a significant risk that Russia would try again to finish the business that they started at a moment when Ukraine is in a weaker position, which again makes it so difficult for Zelensky to negotiate with the Russian side if they negotiate at all in good faith. Because as long as there are no security guarantees from the western side, he will always be on his own in preventing that Russia just tries to attack again in a couple of weeks or months and tries to finish the business.

Could negotiations and provisional peace happen between Russia and Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:27] So given this sort of very messy situation on the ground right now and also given the fact that Ukraine is not itself going to achieve its maximalist aims of evicting Russian troops from all of Ukrainian territory, what opportunities might exist, if at all, for a messy sort of provisional peace or a messy peace agreement of some sort or a cessation of hostilities of some sort?

Liana Fix [00:13:01] Provisional peace agreement would mean that there would have to be concessions made from both sides in terms of Russia would need to make concessions in its ambitions and Ukraine probably also concessions when it comes to NATO membership. That’s something Zelensky has already signaled that he would accept dropping the ambition for membership from Ukraine’s constitution, and the other part would be to freeze contested territories such as Crimea for a 50-year negotiation period. That was one of the suggestions from the Ukrainian side. That was before the pictures of the atrocities that we’ve seen right now. So again, from a Russian perspective it would further strengthen to what extent Russia is serious about this because if they were serious about negotiations, they now basically with the atrocities happening that basically are backfiring because it does not bring it closer to a negotiated solution. And this provisional peace needs to be in a situation where Ukraine is in a relatively strong position because part of these negotiations are from the Ukrainian side security guarantees from the West and as long as the West does not want to give clear military security guarantees. So far, we have with some statements about political guarantees, possibly after a ceasefire. So, the West does not want to become a military actor there, and as long as this is the case, Ukraine needs a negotiated outcome that allows it to continue to defend itself to keep the military and the army, and to continue to seek weapons deliveries from the West so that it does not end up in a weaker situation in case Russia tries again to attack in the future.

What is a security guarantee and could governments in the West agree to one with Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:12] Can I maybe just probe you a little further on this idea of security guarantees? Because, you know, as you said, now it does not seem likely that there is any kind of provisional peace or cease fire any time in the near future. But if there is to be one, it will have to include from Ukraine’s perspective, security guarantees from presumably the West. What does that mean in practice or what might that look like in practice?

Liana Fix [00:15:44] From the Ukrainian side it would definitely mean that the West would underwrite an agreement and guarantee an agreement between Ukraine and Russia, which would mean that in case Russia violates this agreement, those guarantors would have to be willing to engage militarily, to defend Ukraine and to defend the agreement. That is sort of the basic definition of a security guarantee. But that comes relatively close almost to Article 5 guarantees that are given to NATO members and the discussion right now is from those countries that have signaled that they are thinking about security guarantees as Berlin has done that those security guarantees should be below Article 5 so less than Article 5 guarantees to Ukraine because the West not want to be committed to be a military actor, but more than those Budapest assurances from the Budapest memorandum in 1994, where Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons from Soviet times  for its territorial integrity and the guarantees back then including the UK, they have not been able to enforce the agreement. So, the magic formula, is less than Article 5 but more than the Budapest memorandum but how this can look like in practice and whether less than Article 5 will be sufficient to deter Russia from trying again? That’s a very, very big question mark at the moment. And hopefully, there’s creative thinking going on of this question how exactly it could look like. But from the Ukrainian side, they would definitely want security guarantees that involve a military component, knowing very well the reluctance of Western states to engage militarily.

What could motivate Russia and Putin to negotiate and move towards peace with Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:39] And from a Russian perspective, what might some elements of like an unsatisfactory cessation of hostilities look like, if not in the near term, which obviously does not seem like this is going to happen in the near term. But presumably, you know, at some point, it seems based on what we’ve seen so far that this conflict is proceeding to a stalemate sort of situation. What might Russia accept?

Liana Fix [00:18:13] That’s perhaps the most difficult question here, because who is Russia at the moment? At the moment there’s a small decision-making circle around the Russian president and the Russian president is very determined that his aim is the historical unity between Ukrainians and Russians, which translates into Ukraine has no way to exist as an independent state. So, what would certainly be something that Moscow would react to is that significant military losses would have to be acknowledged in some way and could lead to at least the very practical realization that both from an economic perspective and from a military perspective, continuing the war the way Russia does right now leads into a cul-de-sac. But the question really is to what extent does the Russian president get objective and neutral information on the state of the war and on the developments on the ground and how much pressure is needed? This comes back to the question of what kind of weapon deliveries should Western states give Ukraine, but also the question of energy sanctions towards Russia, because this is the lifeline that Russia lives on right now, and which perhaps not directly, but most definitely indirectly supports its war in Ukraine.

What role does public opinion play in Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the resulting reactions from Western governments?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:52] And at least thus far, Putin seems to believe, and it’s true thus far that his forces can continue to commit atrocity crimes. The murder of civilians we saw in places around Kyiv and then just this morning, waking up to news of a missile attack on a crowded civilian train station in eastern Ukraine. That these war crimes and crimes against humanity can continue to be committed while simultaneously trading gas for euros.

Liana Fix [00:20:30] Yeah, absolutely, and I mean, this is one of the lessons that Russia has drawn from past wars. It has analyzed very closely how the West reacted to the Russian atrocities committed in Syria, how the West reacted to Russia’s first steps in eastern Ukraine into Crimea, but also how the West reacted to Chechnya. So, it’s not very difficult to read sort of the cost-benefit calculus on the western side is to make assumptions on it. But what the Kremlin always underestimates is, from a Moscow perspective, the whole idea of Western values and the values set is just not something that Moscow understands because it just assumes that every actor acts the same way it does, and that public outcry, public opinion values, something which is just fake, it doesn’t really exist, but every country is just concerned about its very hard-core interests. And this is a crucial miscalculation. And it’s already right now a miscalculation because some of the public outcry over the way Ukraine has increased the pressure on Western policymaking to act in a decisive way. So, while at the same time, Moscow thinks it has understood the West and it can continue to commit atrocities and the West will always want to continue the energy relationship because it’s just about economic interest. Moscow cannot understand that that actually public opinion in Western countries that may have an influence on policy making and are very much driven by deep held values.

What role does German public opinion play in their government’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:15] I mean, I know that you are an historian and an expert on German politics. Is there like a threshold in which the German public might no longer tolerate continued scenes of atrocity and might demand of their policymakers that they enact energy sanctions, which of course in turn would cause hardship on Germans themselves and others throughout Europe? I mean, is there a threshold that might be reached?

Liana Fix [00:22:51] Perhaps it’s not a very sort of clear-cut threshold that we can say, oh, an atrocity on the scale of that we see now on a bigger scale will lead to something so it’s always difficult to say what, triggers societies and public reaction but we do see also, in public opinion, a gradual shift in German public opinion. So, there’s a huge support for weapon deliveries towards Ukraine. There’s also increasingly support for offensive weapon deliveries, and there’s also a feeling in German society that Germany is not doing enough to support Ukraine. So at the moment, German public opinion is ahead of its policy makers, and this can and will play a role in in change of positions.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:41] But could you foresee a situation in which the German population supports a policy of restricting energy imports from Russia, even though that might sharply increase their own energy costs?

Liana Fix [00:23:58] This is very much a question of policymaking, so there’s enough statecraft, a state has all available means that we’ve seen this in the Corona pandemic to soften the impact of economic hardship on its population. And there are many creative instruments and ways how you can think about this and how this has been done in the past where the state basically tries to support jobs to make the impact on those in need less severe. So, it is really a question of policy making. I think it’s also not a question of an immediate exit from both oil and gas starting tomorrow, but it’s a question about thinking creatively how we can start now, and, in a timeline, which is not only an inward-looking timeline on looking at Germany’s economy and Europe’s economy, but it’s also a timeline that can actually help Ukraine.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:03] You know, it’s interesting. I came into this conversation thinking we’d spend a lot of time discussing possible contours of an unsatisfactory peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia but the fact of these atrocity crimes, these crimes against humanity that have been broadcast across screens, you know, around the world and experienced so brutally inside Ukraine has seemingly sort of fundamentally changed the politics of this conflict as well.

Liana Fix [00:25:35] I mean, it certainly has made it more difficult and much more complicated because again, if the essence of the state is to protect its citizens and a negotiated outcome would mean that large parts of Ukrainian population under Russian control with those atrocities taking place in many areas under Russian control—it just makes it incredibly more complicated. And again, this is something where Russia’s behavior has again, at least from our perspective, made any diplomatic solutions much more difficult.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:21] Well, Liana, thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful, as always.

Liana Fix [00:26:26] Thank you.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:28] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Liana Fix for her time. Once again, this was a very helpful conversation. And yeah, as I mentioned at the outset, I intended this conversation to kind of focus on the contours of a possible diplomatic solution, which was the focus of her piece with Michael Kimmage. But recent events, the revelation of such atrocity crimes in areas around Kyiv have changed all that. And so again, I appreciate her time. All right. Thanks, and we’ll see you next time. Bye!