Updated: Mar 5
The original version of this interview can be found here (Italian).
On March 2, 2022, I had the opportunity to interview Simone Pieranni and talk with him about the current clash in Ukraine. Below you can find the full text of the interview.
Before starting, however, a brief presentation of our interviewee. Simone Pieranni is one of the founders of China Files, a Beijing-based publishing agency that collaborates with Italian media with reports and articles on China. From 2006 to 2014 he lived in China, writing for Italian and international media. He works on the foreign editorial staff of Il Manifesto. Together with Giada Messetti, he is the author of the podcast China Risciò, produced by Piano P. He is the author of Brand Tibet (Derive Approdi, 2010), Cina Globale (Manifestolibri, 2017), of the novel Genova Macaia (Laterza, 2017), by Red Mirror, il nostro future si scrive in Cina (Laterza, 2020) and La Cina Nuova (Laterza, 2021).
What are the main historical and current reasons that led to the conflict?
For the historical origins, you can all read and listen to the speech that Putin gave for more than two hours, because it is clear that he has even pre-USSR Russia in mind, speaking of Russian soul. Many historians have also highlighted very many contradictions in his speech, but I am not an expert in Russian history, so I can only rely on the words of others. The more recent reasons, on the other hand, are closer to us. From a Russian point of view, there is this "problem" also supported by China, namely that of the eastward enlargement of NATO. It is indubitable that NATO has expanded into those territories that were once part of the Warsaw Pact. Undoubtedly, for reasons of his own security, Putin has always wanted to keep his distance from NATO countries. In 2014, when he was president of Ukraine, Yanukovych was a pro-Russian president, at a time when money was needed, he asked both Russia and the European Union. Demonstrations begin, at first very joyful as they approach the EU. Yanukovych's government then responded with the use of police and armed police. At that point the demonstrations take another turn, they become real clashes. One of the reasons why Putin talks about denazification is because within the clashes that took place in Maidan Square, in Kiev. In 2014 there was a conspicuous military presence of far-right groups that refer for example to Bandera, a Nazi of the Ukrainian SS, which had also attempted to make pogroms against Jews in Poland. There are many historical origins in this story. The groups that opposed armed police intervention were the armed ones, which tend to be the most nationalist and far-right groups. The situation then overflowed into the conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine, which are those closest to the border with Russia and where Russian is spoken in many areas. With the declaration of independence by two parts of the Donbass region, namely Donetsk and Lugansk, they were supported by Russia, taking advantage of this to annex Crimea. The situation stopped there, with the election of Poroshenko, therefore a Ukraine that had the will to join NATO in the constitution. Then Zelensky arrived. It is clear that what happened in 2014 was not an end point, Putin continued to insist that Ukrainian wishes to join NATO were dangerous for his security, NATO, or rather the German Chancellor Scholz made it clear, when the crisis arose, that Ukraine's entry into NATO was not on the agenda. Perhaps at that moment a mediation could have been found. Then the situation degenerated, Putin decided to invade Ukraine militarily, with a military offensive that according to experts he had been preparing for some time: he had already amassed troops on the eastern border, he had effectively saved Lukashenko from the protests that had characterized Belarus last year. The military bases in Crimea, allowed him to do what he did, that is, come from the southern front through Crimea, from the eastern front through the Donbass and from the northern front through the Russian border with Ukraine. The reasons given by Putin are not justifiable, but from the Russian point of view these are the causes of the conflict. Then we cannot know what Putin has exactly in mind and if his plan is only to neutralize Ukraine.
How do you think the current situation can evolve? Do you foresee a military escalation of the conflict?
This will depend on the second round of negotiations. What is mediation though? It is really difficult, because to stop the bombing we would have to agree with Putin, make Ukraine neutral, probably with a government acceptable to Moscow, a hypothesis that cannot be accepted by Ukraine. We hope, at least, that a ceasefire will be reached and that we will be able to return to the negotiating table, without the civilians dying in the meantime. I don't know about the intentions, now it is very difficult to say, the news coming from the fighting is very jagged. Both Russian and Ukrainian commanders use communiques to appeal to their own population and public opinion.
What is China's position? Has it changed since the beginning of the crisis? Is China’s neutral stance due to internal tensions, for example Taiwan?
It should be understood who now represents the Chinese position, in the sense that China has a partnership with Russia, had excellent relations with Ukraine, and has almost always supported Russia's security demands and reiterated them even during the war. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, has always been very clear in his position of respect for Ukrainian territorial integrity, so he probably didn't know about Putin's intentions. And above all Wang Yi yesterday (01/03/2022) in the call requested by Kiev with his Ukrainian counterpart Kuleba used the term "conflict", "war" for the first time. Ukraine has asked China to mediate but for the moment there is no news about it. The Central Bank of China today said that it will not participate in economic sanctions against Russia, but at the same time it would seem from a whole series of moves by the banks that, at the same time, they will not go to the rescue of Russia. China is holding, let's say, two feet in two shoes which is unlikely to lead to positive results. There is also this sort of difference in communications: there is Wang Yi who seems very much to be, let's say, on the Ukrainian side, in short, stigmatizing the war and showing concern for civilians, and getting as close as possible in a very delicate moment, naturally with the European Union and the United States. On the other hand, Xi Jinping called Putin and then stayed quiet, so we'll see if this is also an indication of internal party tension. It is worth remembering that the XX Congress of the CCP will be held in October, so in short, it is a very delicate time for China.
What is the position of the EU instead? What about the United States?
The position of the United States has always been clear right from the start: Biden had promised very heavy sanctions against Russia and had specified that there would be no military intervention. The position of the EU, on the other hand, is a peculiar and new position compared to the history of the European Union. It was decided to send weapons to the government of Kiev, in addition to heavily sanctioning Russia, especially with the exclusion from the international payments system of SWIFT which was truly considered the heaviest sanction that could be imposed on the Russians. All this was decided despite a whole series of difficulties: we know that Germany and Italy, for example, were more cautious on energy issues, but in the end the delay was overcome. Let's say that if Putin wanted to divide it, the EU instead managed to unite it even more. The concern is that the EU is uniting in the name, let's say, of its rearmament and that of Ukraine, rather than on political issues or, in fact, they are fractions of politics, for example the protection of migratory flows and so on. In fact, everything has changed, that is, this war will also change the future of Europe.
Given the economic situation in Russia, will it have the strength to support the war and with what consequences for its economy, given the economic sanctions?
Russia has the problem that the longer the war lasts the longer the sanctions, the risk of default is enormous. I do not know if you have seen the face of the head of the Russian Central Bank these days during a fight in the Kremlin, it said it all. The concern is strong, the country will soon go to its knees from an economic point of view and will have to count even with the protests we have seen severely repressed in recent days. There is now talk of thousands of arrests. Putin has a big internal problem both economically and politically. The risk is precisely that the Russian state will in fact fail.
At the level of global geopolitical design, do you think that the trade war between China and the United States has any relation to what is happening in Ukraine?
Not direct, in the sense that the Ukrainian question is independent of the trade clash between China and the US, which, among other things, focuses more on issues related to technology, we know about the semiconductor war and so on. Of course, if the Russian state fails and China does not go to the rescue, this will lead to a series of economic upheavals that will also lead to a redefinition of the trade confrontation with China. However, let us take into account the fact that trade sanctions always have a double face: on the one hand they hit the country they want to punish, on the other they can also have some negative side effects even for the countries that issue them. We will have to see how the situation will evolve, it is still very early to make assessments of this type: we need to see how the Russian economy reacts and, above all, how China will react from the point of view of support or not, even if for now it seems a no. What is certain is that the decisions that China will make will also reverberate in its relationship with the USA, this is evident.
Do you think there could be a democratic future for Ukraine?
Beyond the fact that we all hope so? It depends on how the war will evolve: it is clear that if Russia conquers the most important cities it becomes difficult to guarantee democratic processes. The real problem is that if Russia conquers the big Ukrainian cities, it becomes a war first of invasion and then of occupation, with all that follows, that is, with internal resistance, an exhausting war, which does not bode well for the economy and Russian political stability. Now it is really impossible to make these assessments though.
What geopolitical scenario do you foresee for the near future?
Guys, I don't have a crystal ball! I honestly don't know, a whole series of aspects will certainly change, because it is clear that a whole series of repositioning is taking place: India, for example, which seems to somehow support Russia while being part of the Quad, which could be understood as a sort of Asian NATO with an anti-Chinese function; there are reflections on the whole European world, we will have an increasingly militarized Europe. What will happen, for example, to the sovereignists who have always been "lukewarm", if we want to put it mildly, with Putin? Political dynamics within countries will change, everything will change. From a global point of view, there will be a complete redefinition of international relations, as well as perhaps a new form of tension on a global level, especially if China does not distance itself from Russia. In my view, China is making a grave mistake not to distance itself from Russia and will pay for it, especially if Russia loses the war. If Russia loses the war, mean even if they win in military terms, they will remain completely isolated. I was disappointed today not to see signals from Beijing, as Ukraine itself has asked them to mediate. They thought China was taking the step. But they did not, which means that they want to stay in this interlocutory phase but the time factor is so decisive that if no decisions are made, they will inevitably end up suffering the consequences of the decisions of others.
This interview was conducted and translated by Malvina Montini, a member of European Guanxi's Strategic Communications Team. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the interviewed and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
Malvina Montini has a double bachelor's degree, obtained from Ca' Foscari University in Venice, where she graduated with honours in Chinese language and culture, and Capital Normal University in Beijing, where she obtained a Master of Arts in the Chinese language. During that time, she spent two years in Beijing, China. She is currently attending a double master's degree between the University of Turin (ToChina Studies) (just graduated) and Zhejiang University. She is the Editor in Chief of The Password, the journal of the students of the University of Turin.
The original version of this interview, in Italian, can be found in The Password, a free newspaper, managed by the students of the University of Turin, and aimed at all young people who are curious to know more about the world, about the facts that happen day by day, and to better understand the world in which we live.