The Ukraine conflict can still get worse (Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier)

Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, an expert in NATO, European Defense, Eurasia issues, has answered our questions about three hot topics: Ukraine, Russia and the BRICS, oil and Iran. Mongrenier stressed on the fact that the Ukraine situation still has the potential to warm up and that as a “hybrid war” it participates in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “grand strategy”. Mongrenier said the BRICS are too heterogeneous, have therefore no geopolitical relevance and that Russia failed here in its projects to counterbalance the West. As for the halving of oil prices since summer 2014, Mongrenier explained that every oil producing countries do suffer from the situation, that in the Middle East the will to power and armed violence remain decisive and that more will be needed to contain the Iran regime.

Version française disponible ici.


Professeur agrégé, Doctor in geography-geopolitics and auditor at the Paris-based Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defense (IHEDN), Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier is a researcher at the Institut Français de Géopolitique (French Institute of Geopolitics – University-Paris VIII) and a research fellow at the Institute Thomas More in Paris. Mongrenier runs a seminar on the geopolitics of defense and security issues in Europe. His research about NATO and Europe’s defense led him to work on Russia’s foreign policy and the geopolitical interpretations that comprise and determine the Kremlin’s “grand strategy” in Europe-Eurasia and the Middle East. His research also focuses on the oil and gas challenges in Europe, Turkey’s geopolitics (place and role within the western alliances and the Middle-Eastern balances, energy connection to the Caspian Sea) and Iran’s nuclear issue.

The Interview

1) A serious and ongoing conflict started one year ago that opposes Ukraine and the western countries against the pro-Russian separatists and Russia. Are we currently heading towards a toughening, a status quo or a peaceful settlement of the conflict?

J.S.M.: Very partly implemented on the ground, the Minsk accord (Minsk 2) and the current military-territorial status quo are of the most fragile: renewed fighting is likely. As diplomacy’s made of “constructive ambiguities” (i.e. half-lies and omissions), François Hollande and Angela Merkel pretended to consider Vladimir Putin as a “peacemaker” and an intermediate with pro-Russian separatists who’d be acting on their own. The truth is that the Kremlin firstly seized Crimea by force and then led a “covert war” in the Donbass, before intervening directly and starting an open war. All this cannot be accepted by Kyiv and Ukraine, like any sovereign State, has a right to self-defense. Lastly, the hybrid war carried out by the Kremlin subscribes to a “grand strategy” crafted according to a Eurasian geopolitical lecture that rationalizes and justifies the will of re-orbiting all or parts of the former USSR. Revanchist and revisionist, such re-unionist project is war-fomenting.

2) Contradictory information is spreading across Europe about the state of Russia’s economy. A majority thinks the sanctions and the simultaneous fall in the ruble and oil prices greatly put it at risk and President Vladimir Putin as well. Conversely, a minority believes that what doesn’t kill Russia makes it stronger. With whom do you agree?

J.S.M.: The heroic-sacrificial vision of the Russian people we’re wallowing into must be criticized. If you refer to the Soviet era, Alexander Zinoniev told us about a society based on lie and denunciation, utilitarianism and the loss of all moral sense, if not brazen cynicism. The psycho-social reality was thus far from the “new Homo Sovieticus” served by propaganda. Under Putin, would have the Russians turned themselves into a people of heroes? In fact, an implicit pact ruled the interactions between the power and the population: acceptation of authoritarianism in exchange for consumer society. The economic model’s deadlock, the fall in oil prices and the sanctions are cumulating today their effects, jeopardizing the basis of power and putting this apparent consensus at risk. If the effects aren’t enough to modify the geopolitical equation now, it means one will have to stand firm and go further. As a same time, the West’s civilian and military support to Ukraine will be central to the next developments. A deep geopolitical conflict demands patience and length of time.

3) 5 years ago, media regularly described the BRICS as the economic axis of the future, the most able to succeed the western one. Today, one mainly speaks about the BRICS when it comes to insist on the crisis in Brazil, the weakening of South Africa and the slowdown of China. Unity’s no more, what happened? Has Russia lost here its last chance to weigh on the international scene in the long term?

J.S.M.: The geopolitical reading of the BRICS was amplifying the reality and identified economic emergence as power. In the facts however, the BRICS constitute a heterogeneous economic ensemble and cannot be considered a geopolitical alliance. Think about the Sino-Indian rivalry, the lack of Brazil’s interest in what’s beyond its immediate environment and market shares, the little effective power of South Africa even on the dark continent. Unity was inexistent and the theme of multi-polarity was first an anti-western controversy. Today, the exhaustion of growth’s different patterns is obvious and it primarily concerns Russia. In truth, Russia’s economy is based on raw products’ export and its “State monopolistic capitalism” hinders the building of another growth model. The Russian economy doesn’t weigh much on the geo-economics world scene and the Kremlin’s attempt to make the BRICS a diplomatic forum able to counter-balance the West failed. Nonetheless, one should closely follow the Sino-Russian relations and the SCO.

4) The quick fall in oil prices, reinforced by Saudi Arabia’s and OPEC’s non-intervention, should redistribute the geopolitical cards to the benefit of the western countries and their Arab allies. Why it is not the case on the ground as Russia’s active in Syria and Iran’s active in Iraq and Yemen?

J.S.M.: All the oil producing countries do suffer from the fall in oil prices, including the Sunni Arab regimes, allied with western powers in an area which, despite oil from North America, will remain crucial. Furthermore, the will to power and armed violence are decisive. Russia’s using its alliance with Bashar Al-Assad, and with the Islamic Shiite regime in Tehran, to regain a foothold in the Middle East (see the announced delivery of S-300 to Tehran). From the Arabic-Persian Gulf to the Oriental Mediterranean, Iran wants to become the dominant power. That is in such context that Iran’s nuclear program must be understood. On the other side, there is a US administration that’s preoccupied by domestic issues and general forward-looking schemes (the international insertion of the “emerging”). In the Middle East, the exit from Iraq has been premature and Barack Obama has bet on Iran’s transformation into an appeased country concerned about inserting itself and growing rich. That would suppose another political regime with other strategic intents. In fine, politics aren’t soluble into economics: the decrease in oil prices won’t suffice to contain the Iran regime, one will have to act powerfully.