«A Ukraine free of oligarchs & with stronger defenses: Russia will remain a threat»

Scholar Luca Lovisolo reviews the contents of the Lugano conference: "A clear message to Putin: the West remains united in support of the Ukrainian cause"
©Gabriele Putzu

The groundwork for Kiev's rebirth was set out on the shores of Lugano. The Ukraine Recovery Conference 2022 ended with the Lugano Declaration, a 7-point document that outlines the path to rebuilding the country overrun by Putin. We delve into the contents of the July 4 and 5 summit with independent researcher Luca Lovisolo, a scholar of Eastern Europe and author of the book Russia's Project on Us (Archomai, 2020).

Firstly, what kind of conference was URC 2022 in Lugano?

"This kind of conference is by no means new. Meaning that it is a mode of action that has been established, for several years now. It has a similar precedent, albeit one for a very different situation, which was the 2012 Somalia conference held in London. It's about taking a country that has undergone some major shake-up and not leaving it on its own in the reconstruction, because it could take place in an unregulated way: the state authorities may be unable to adequately control the flow of aid or there could be third-party intervention that is not disinterested. A number of international actors sit around a table and define a program of actions for the reconstruction and revitalization of that country, setting down in black and white the steps to be taken, and establishing timetables and a system of controls to check what is happening, before new measures are decided, adjusting projects if there is a need. It is a structural intervention, the kind that is worked out in conferences of this kind. There is certainly a risk of it looking like a parade or a set of nice speeches. In the organization of the international events it is an inevitable risk, but, in fact, if you read the documents behind the Lugano meeting, you can see that there is a concrete project. In the case of Somalia, we saw that, amidst a thousand difficulties, it resumed its existence as a state, thanks to the interventions promoted by the London conference, later followed by other follow-up interventions. Somalia is still having great difficulties, however, a few months ago presidential elections were held in a country that, until the early 2000s, had in fact been wiped off the map. One should not underestimate these models of intervention: they prove to work, even though they may have limitations. This " constant planning and control" idea has also come to the fore in the European Union's interventions after the pandemic, an example being what is called PNRR (National Resilience Recovery Plan) in Italy. Here's the mechanism: 'I'll give you the money and we'll go ahead with the program only if you show me exactly what you're doing.' In cases like Ukraine and Somalia, a legal and social framework for intervention is also given. If you like, these are the foundations on which the Lugano conference is built, which is a follow-up to a series that started in 2017-it's a path that is developing."

What are your thoughts on the points set out in the Lugano Declaration?

"There are some points that I think qualify: first of all, the strong presence of the European Union, as represented by the president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The whole path of Ukraine's reform and reconstruction is taking place in the European context, with the aim of integrating the country more and more into the EU with a view to accession, which, as we know, is becoming more and more concrete with the granting of candidate country status in recent days. For example, among the various points is the call for equitable growth, and here we already see a difference from Ukraine's recovery phase after the end of the USSR. Then, in Ukraine as in almost all Soviet republics, there was a highly imbalanced development. We all know about the oligarchs, the wealthy hoarders who took advantage of the legislative and economic disorder to seize industry and entire production and banking systems. Such figures are still a problem today, not only in Russia, but also in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. The program discussed at the Lugano conference explicitly talks about "deoligarchizing" the country and enforcing antitrust regulations that meet the EU standard. So it touches a nerve in the country that is central, toward equitable social development that, for example, has failed in Russia. Today in Russia there are huge inequities between these super-rich and whole parts of the Federation left to their own devices."

Ukraine does not wish to repeat the mistake it made on leaving the USSR, when, in an effort not to annoy its Russian neighbor, it remained defensively and security-mindedly subdued.

An ever more European Ukraine, then.

"Exactly. This is evident from another qualifying point in the Declaration, namely, integration into the EU as an explicit goal for institutional and regulatory aspects. That is, Ukraine's own institutions and its legislation must be guided to increasingly approach the logic of the European Union, not only from a purely legal point of view but also from an economic point of view. Then the integration of the Zelensky-led country into European knowledge, information and education networks and value chains. And finally, the development of the private economy, which relates back to the point where we talked about "deoligarization." In the ex-Soviet republics, oligarchs have assumed the role in the economy that the state had in the USSR: they effectively own the means of production. The private economy of individuals is not culturally developed to give rise to an economic circuit of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as we know it in the West. It is not that there are no SMEs in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, but they fail to make the critical mass that allows an equitable distribution of economic initiatives between small and large entities. So a cultural push is needed to foster SMEs. This is explicitly mentioned as developing the private economy within a framework of developing the principles of the rule of law, so transparency, fair elections, independent judiciary, and transparency of public administration. Ukraine, in comparison with other post-Soviet states, has already taken important steps, on these points. If we then look at the different items in the work program, we see that, for example, defense is still the first chapter, first priority, of the need for investment and development."

Will Russia still pose a threat at the end of the conflict?

" This is certain. In Ukraine there is an underlying assumption that Russia's will remain a structural threat. That was underestimated in the past. But we are seeing that until the political situation in Russia is clear, and presumably decades will pass, the threat toward Ukraine's eastern borders is likely to remain. The former Soviet republic does not want to repeat the mistake it made at the exit of the USSR, when in order not to annoy its Russian neighbor, it remained subdued from a defense and security point of view. At that time, in the era of Boris Yeltsin, there were still fairly smooth and more transparent relations. As much as relations have never been idyllic between the two countries, no one could have anticipated that Putin's "shots" would come. The fact that defense is put first in a plan that is looking beyond the end of the war indicates a clear decision of Ukraine's geopolitical positioning in opposition to Russia."

Are there other points to be explored?

"There are chapters on the development of core sectors of the Ukrainian economy, such as metal and mechanical engineering and agriculture. There is talk about information technology, which is a very important issue, and then there is the whole aspect of energy efficiency on which Europe is focusing a lot today. Another important point, which makes it clear how central Ukraine's rapprochement with the EU is, is the removal of the so-called bottlenecks between Kiev and Europe. By modernizing the communication routes, solving logistical problems, making border points more efficient. Let me give you an example, there is a fairly significant issue with respect to transportation: the gauge of the Ukrainian railways is still the Soviet one, which is wider than the European one. Under different circumstances, I have heard reports that Ukraine is seriously considering adopting the European gauge, precisely in order to reduce bottlenecks in the transfer of goods and people in a space that is steadily becoming more and more "European Ukraine." In such a context, it becomes important for the country to be able to also attract resources from abroad in the form of human resources. Therefore, the living conditions and social framework must also be developed so that intelligences, technicians, students and other relevant categories can feel enticed to live and work in Ukraine. If you look at this set of data, you can clearly see that this is a set of preconditions that must lead to macro-economic stability of the Ukrainian financial system integrated into the EU and national security that will still have to take into account the Russian threat."

There has been talk of $750 billion to rebuild Ukraine.

"That $750 billion represents a purely indicative figure, as the war is still going on. It is an estimate made at the present time."

In contrast, what does URC 2022 represent for the Russians?

"Russia had hoped that the West, after four months, would become de-affiliated with the Ukrainian cause. But instead, Moscow is attending a conference in which some 40 or so key Western countries, including EU members and nations with central economic decision-making and intervention power have once again found themselves united, standing together in Lugano, in support of the Ukrainian cause. The URC2022 is a clear message to Russia: for Putin it was proof that his calculation about the division of the West has proven, at least so far, wrong."

The big foreign press and heads of state of major countries were missing, but the more personalities who are not directly involved, such as heads of state, exist, the more the event turns into a parade from which it becomes difficult to expect concrete results.

There was no shortage of criticism: some pointed out the poor coverage of the event by the global media, and heads of state were absent...

"The big foreign press and heads of state of major countries were absent, but the more prominent figures that are not directly involved, such as heads of state, the more the event turns into a parade from which it becomes difficult to expect concrete results. I find it much more useful that there were instead ministers, experts from various fields and the international organizations' representatives who were able to talk about the suggested topics: there were people who were technically able to make concrete action. When heads of state come and the big international event is prepared, then, inevitably, big words are used and we are exposed to the "it was just a catwalk" criticism. These conferences are usually quite concrete; it's quite normal that they don't cause a big fuss. Here, I personally don't see that as a limitation, in fact, I felt it was better that we had representatives who have direct involvement, rather than big names in politics and journalism. The ones who then, after the catwalk is over, go home and whoever has seen it has seen it. Of course, the Swiss press followed the event more, especially the Ticino press. It strikes me as a good thing that Lugano hosted this conference: the president of the Confederation, the president of the National and many other authorities are not seen every day in Lugano. It is natural that there is this divergence between the Swiss, and Ticino, press and the international press."

There are those who have deemed it premature to talk about reconstruction of a country still at war, claiming that the Donbass could become a Russian province...

"Putin's goal is not to conquer only the Donbass, but all of Ukraine. It is written in black and white (here an in-depth article). If Russia were to conquer the Donbass, it would not be satisfied. It is highly likely that when Moscow has completed-if it completes it-the conquest of the two regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, it will pause, because it is currently exhausted and without power. It can be a pause of even 5 or 10 years, let's not forget that Russia's first aggression against Ukraine took place in 2014 in Crimea. Then Russia paused, waited 8 years and this year took the second step. This pattern can repeat itself."

The continued presence of the Russians on Ukrainian territory would jeopardize Kiev's entry into the EU...

"Certainly, although the examples of Cyprus show that an EU accession can take place even with an illegally occupied portion of territory [the northern part of the island, where there is a self-proclaimed pro-Turkish republic]. In any case, it is not only for this reason that the Russians must be driven out. The whole world, faced with the war in Ukraine, has a tremendous problem of international law. I recently read a comment by Garry Kasparov, the chess champion who later became a political activist critical of Putin. He said, "If the Ukrainians had not repelled Putin's troops in Kiev in the first days of the war and Russia had captured the whole of Ukraine, we would be living in a completely different world today. We should take note that the Russian president is making the best of things." A world, I would add, in which Russia would have wiped an Independent country of 40 million people off the map, and we, today, would be here wondering what's next. The problem is not the Donbass. The problem is that since World War II international law has stated that territorial conquests made by force should no longer be recognized. If we accept that Russia will dismember part of Ukraine in its own favor, not only does the territorial integrity of this country collapse, but a founding principle of modern international law collapses. That is why Russia cannot win and Ukraine must be returned to its pre-2014 territorial status."