With the war in Ukraine entering its fourth month, the 27-nation European Union is working toward what would be its sixth round of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia since Feb. 24.
While outside of Governing’s usual coverage areas, the war in Ukraine has impacted domestic policy discussions here in the United States. To better understand the ongoing struggle, Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson recently spoke with Italian journalist Marzio G. Mian, an award-winning correspondent who has reported on cultural, social and geopolitical topics from 56 countries. For seven years, he was deputy chief editor of Corriere della Sera, which debuted in 1876 as Italy’s first newspaper.
Europeans see the war through a different lens, explains Mian, a resident of Milan, and that difference involves more than simple geography.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Almost two-thirds of the global population is with Russia or neutral … It’s not just China and India. There is not a single country in Africa that is pro-West, and in South America there is anti-American sentiment.”
— Marzio Mian
Governing: Give us a sense of how you, as a European who’s visited and written about this part of the world, see this conflict?
Marzio Mian: Europe is not a confederation. It’s an economic club. This is a big difference from the U.S. It’s not just a matter of geography. It’s a matter of culture. When you think with an economic perspective, you don’t have long vision. Europe is divided.
I was in Russia five or six years ago, and I have a clear idea of the level of corruption there. I know the strong influence of oligarchs and government. And I know how radical the first line of the army is. Ukraine, of course, isn’t a democracy, but it’s not a country like Costa Rica or Bhutan. They’re really very similar to Russians. They have the same culture and even the same idea of power. But recent history has led them to look more clearly to the West as an economic, political and cultural future, and so they have distanced themselves.
There is one important reason why this war happened that has nothing to do with militarization or politics or geopolitical balance. It has to do with religion. The Russian Orthodox hierarchy, starting with the Patriarch Kirill, declared war on Western culture and the global order. They started pushing at least 10 years ago for Russian exceptionalism. When the Ukrainian church broke relations and started a new church, that was in some way for Russia a declaration of war. This is not a religious war, but it does include a war between religions.
This is a war far away from America. We know that America has always had a special interest in and a special relation with Europe, but this is a war in Europe. We see it in a different way. If there is an escalation, we are just next door, so we feel that Biden and the leadership in America is using strong and risky language. And there’s a feeling here of a new agenda. I don’t mean regime change, but Russia as a continent is very rich. Others want to take advantage of the situation. China is just waiting to take over in some way. Geopolitically, it will be a big problem for the U.S. if Russia and China are allies. They have been partners now for several years, but it’s very risky for Russia because, historically, there has never been a sincere relationship between Russia and China. Each is very suspicious of the other. Still, reality is reality, and Russia will have to fill the gap from lost Western investments, and they are looking east.
Governing: From Putin’s point of view, what is his justification for what he’s doing?
Marzio Mian: The worst moment of his life was the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he never accepted the existence of the state of Ukraine. He’s been preparing for this war for years. When Russia raised gas prices last year, it was to finance the army. Putin is obsessed with what has happened in Ukraine. This is a vendetta. And there is a cultural aspect as well. Kirill’s famous speech about gay marriage was good for the headlines it made, but it really is something they are scared of. They are scared that they will be polluted by decadent Western culture.
Governing: If Putin gets away with it and absorbs some or all of Ukraine, will he stop there?
Marzio Mian: I don’t think he will win. What worries me is the thought of Europe cutting gas and oil contracts. That will be a very scary moment. At that point, Putin could do something very dangerous. Oil was the beginning of his career. When the price of oil went up in the early 2000s, it allowed Putin to feed a population that had been starving in the ’90s. And now his career could end with oil because that’s his cash machine. In the 20 years of the Putin era, there’s been no real progress in technology or culture. It’s been all about oil and gas. Even the military technology is old and weak and anachronistic, as we have seen. I think there will be a turning point where he realizes he doesn’t have the strength to go on.
The interest of Finland and Sweden in NATO, ending years of neutrality, has to be considered as a possible cause for escalation. And now Switzerland. I personally think that we are already in a third world war. Not in military terms, but culturally and politically. Almost two-thirds of the global population is with Russia or neutral. I think both Europe and the U.S. are underestimating this. It’s not just China and India. There is not a single country in Africa that is pro-West, and in South America, there is anti-American sentiment. The U.S. approach has always been that they are the best because they have democracy, but democracy is facing a crisis. What Western country doesn’t face a crisis of democracy in one way or the other?
“We are already in a third world war. Not in military terms, but culturally and politically.”
Governing: You say that Putin can’t win. Then how does this end?
Marzio Mian: First of all, who could facilitate a possible peace agreement? Not Europe because Europe is in the front of the line with sanctions. Not the U.S. and not China. And I don’t think that we can believe in (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan as a possible mediator. So that’s a problem. And because there’s the thought that Putin can be defeated on the ground, the U.S. and Great Britain and some leadership in Europe think that this is the time to try to push Putin completely out of Ukraine, but that’s problematic. I personally think that a way should be found to give Putin an opportunity to get out and save face, but I don’t know how. Another obstacle for peace could be [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy. The east of Ukraine will have to be discussed territorially, and like in poker, Zelenskyy wants the “all in.”
Governing: Will the Russian people feel in some sense, even if they lose, that Mother Russia is back, that pride is restored?
Marzio Mian: No, because the empire will not be restored. But Russia, even without Putin, will remain a crucial place because of its huge natural resources. Oil and gas are 40 percent of its budget. Even the huge land covered with permafrost in Russia is an asset. Scientists don’t know what could happen with the melting of permafrost, but that land could be very important for agriculture. There are experts who think that in the next 20 or 30 years, Russia and Canada will become much more prosperous and powerful, while the more populated parts of the world become more and more desertificated — China has a huge problem with desertification. The rest of the world has huge needs for resources. The High North is not populated, but it’s becoming more and more livable, and it’s full of resources. So Russia as a land will continue to be very important. China and the U.S. know this.
Governing: What about Putin?
Marzio Mian: I think he’s seriously sick. And he’s completely paranoid. In the last two or three years, he has met with a circle of only 20 or 25 people. He’s not in touch with reality. I don’t think he has mental problems in a way that he could do something crazy, but again, the turning point could be if the oil and gas contracts are cut. At that point, he could get crazy.
Governing: Will he survive politically?
Marzio Mian: That’s difficult to say. There are people who study Kremlin dynamics who think that if clear defeat became public, that would be the point where Russia would come first, before Putin. And even the FSB — the former KGB — and the Orthodox hierarchy are not so strong as they used to be. There is a new generation that doesn’t agree with the anti-Western paranoia and ideology. They are not outspoken, but they are talking. I don’t think Putin will survive a clear defeat.
“Putin is obsessed with what has happened in Ukraine. This is a vendetta.”
— Marzio Mian
Governing: If he was concerned about encirclement, it appears that he’s only made matters worse.
Marzio Mian: Yes. Even in the Arctic, this war has changed the scenario. The Arctic was a place of peace, a place of collaboration. There was a famous speech by (Mikhail) Gorbachev in Murmansk in 1987 where he said, “Let’s make this pole a pole of peace.” It was from there that the Arctic Council became a crucial forum, with America and Russia and the other Arctic countries around the table. It was one of the few places where America and Russia were talking. But now, the Arctic is a place of dispute, a place of possible conflict. It is supermilitarized. And with Sweden and Finland joining NATO, the surviving Arctic Council will be a NATO Arctic Council. Now Russia is working to have its own Arctic Council with China, India, Brazil and so on. The Arctic is the only ocean that has never experienced war, but now it could be a place of conflict.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.