Professor Dmytro Sherengovsky: ‘Putin is committing a crime against humanity, and Mariupol is the Ukrainian Vukovar’

Lviv is one of the cities in Ukraine with almost the largest number of monuments, and the historic city center is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List

From the first days of full-scale Russian aggression on Ukraine Lviv started to be the main spot for IDPs in Western Ukraine. Few days before February 24th I had a meeting with the Deputy Mayor of the city on my university issues, but we touched on the question of possible Russian invasion – that was a time when nobody was sure it could happen. He told me that the city prepared a plan to be a transit point to other towns, since Lviv has no capacity to host large numbers of IDPs – no more than 100 thousands. As of March 27th, the city hosted 200 thousands of people (25% of usual population), and more than 1,1 mln of people crossed Lviv while fleeing to Poland. Lviv also serves as one of the major humanitarian hubs where the majority of humanitarian aid from Western partners is coming and later being distributed all over Ukraine. Few days ago the head of the regional administration informed that almost 50 thousand tons of humanitarian aid has been sent since February 24th – Dmytro Sherengovsky, Director of the Ukrainian Catholic University’s International Academic Relations Department from Lviv tells us in our recent interview. Professor Sherengovsky comments the situation in his homeland during these uncertain times for Ukraine, Europe and the world in total.

– After Russians started air strikes on Ukrainian cities, that is simple terrorism rather than conventional war, the crucial question was to protect cultural heritage. Lviv is one of the cities in Ukraine with almost the largest number of monuments, and the historic city center is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. So we started to mount protections on some historical monuments, stained glass windows and individual sculptures, and a number of valuable sculptures were dismantled and stored. The problem is that we have no such defense experience, so using the tools that we have. Despite Lviv being situated far from the frontline, no one Ukrainian city is safe. Actually, I’m answering these questions immediately after the strikes that destroyed the oil depot and the building of the tank factory (production was relocated during the first days of Russian invasion). Several buildings of pure citizens received damage. Luckly no one was killed. Russians are not paying attention to cultural heritage and civilians. They have already damaged the unique Kharkiv Philharmonic, several churches in Kharkiv and Kyiv regions. At the same time Russian propaganda is sharing messages that only military objects are being bombed. One more lie in their list – professor Sherengovsky added.

Ukraine is ‘a dim light of hope’ when we talk about democracy. That makes Putin nervous, itchy. He did not hope for strong resistance of Ukraine and paralely his former associates, leaders of EU countries and other countries, abandoning him. Can you comment on that?

Yes, that’s true. Putin’s original plan was to conquer Ukraine as fast as possible to win the time until Western countries will react. Russians also planned to overthrow or seize the present legitimate government and achieve a change of government to pro-russian. They even showed a fugitive former president Yanukovych during first rounds of ceasefire negotiations in Minsk. But these plans were ruined by the Ukrainian army and society. We can observe that finally leaders of the countries are coming to understanding that authoritarian regimes can’t be trusted as partners. Ukraine was yelling about it for years! Democratic governments may think that they can build economic or political relations based on contracts or agreements with autocracies, but they have no respect for the rules of the civilized world. Once their regimes are secured they can easily go back to the old-style behavior. A typical logic of a criminal.

Ukrainians are grateful to our Western partners for providing us military, financial and humanitarian support. That helps to continue the strategic defence that we are doing right now. However, the major problem is our inability to save the sky and prevent damages to our cities and kills of civilians. Sadly our appeals are not heard, and more and more people are dying every day.

As a professor of International Relations together with the whole world you are actually witnessing the complete collapse of the world’s communications and relations. On the Ukraine’s example, can you comment he propaganda within those reduced communications?

Propaganda is a major challenge in the world of social media with open access. Especially propaganda of authoritarian regimes that can invest non accountable resources. However, the main problem occurs when governments of democratic countries fail to resist propaganda. I can give an example from the academic world. Since the end of 2000th, Russia established a networks of Russian and Eurasian study centers in many Western countries. Their individual scholars were participating in a variety of exchange and research programs funded not only by the national governments but also by Russian foundations. To promote such cooperation, starting from 2007-2008, the Russian government has established a number of governmental-funded and government-controlled organizations, such as the Russian Cooperation, the Russian World Foundation, the Gorchakov Foundation, etc., to support Russian study centers at American and European universities. In the case of democratic regimes, such activities are not problematic – this form is typical of so-called educational or cultural diplomacy. However, in the case of authoritarian regimes, networks of such centers become a convenient mechanism for spreading state propaganda and even intelligence.

And Russia has taken advantage of this. It is worth mentioning the statement of the head of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service in 2018, who acknowledged that his country has a network of politicians, journalists, businessmen, etc. as agents of Russian influence. It is worth mentioning here that Russia has poured in incredible sums to maintain its influence. Only budget of the Russian Cooperation in 2020 amounted to more than 4 billion rubles. To demonstrate the extent of Russia’s influence on Western academia, Ukrainian researcher Katrina Smagliy published an analytical review in 2018 entitled “Hybrid Analytics: Pro-Kremlin Expert Propaganda in Moscow, Europe and the United States.” I highly recommend to read this analysis to see how various think tanks, scientific journals, foundations, discussion platforms and conferences have been and continue to be used by the Kremlin to share propaganda and spread the ideas of the “Russian world”.

Where did the world leaders go wrong, can you point out an example? That is, do you think the world has responded well? Who and where could have reacted better – America, NATO etc.?

I consider the major problem was toleration of authoritarian regimes. What was done by the international community to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine? We were asking for immediate sanctions when Russian troops were coming to Ukrainian borders for so-called ‘training’ in Belarus. Ukraine warned about the danger of building North Stream 2 as it was never about energy supply, but the supply of influence and corruption in Europe. We were appealing for lethal weapons for defence that would give a powerful sight to Putin that Ukraine will not be an easy ride and our partners will not leave Ukrainians alone. However, countries continued to tolerate, continued to give international platforms for Putin, continued to sign trade contracts and build pipelines. That encouraged Putin as an unarmed victim encourages criminals to act. Yes, Ukraine had domestic challenges, but is it fair to blame a victim?

After WW 2, the international community built a system that had to reject ideologies that call for supremacy of one nation or race. But we forgot that those regimes, who share the opposite ideas should be excluded from the benefits of such a system. International community should take a lesson that toleration of such regimes will sooner or later bring us to war.

How do you comment the communication between the two conflicting leaders towards the world – Volodimir Zelenski and Vladimir Putin? What will be their bigger minus in the future, apart from the war itself (Putin)?

I don’t think there is any reason to communicate with criminals. And what Putin is doing in Ukraine is definitely a crime against humanity. Have a look at what was done in Mariupol – it is modern Vukovar. There is a special procedure to give criminals a chance to share their opinion – trial. You can refer to the Milosevic case – he had a chance to express his vision in the Hague Tribunal.

Again – given that you are a professor – at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lavov – can you comment on the communication of religious leaders on the issue of war?

I’d rather answer briefly here – for any religion killing of civilians is inadmissible. Calling to peace must be accompanied by peacemaking. I consider global religious leaders had not used their potential fully to influence decision-makers and restore the peace asap.

The situation of war will change the whole world economically, politically and energetically. Can we already predict the fundamental changes, the course of events when we speak about the new world order?

It’s hard to make any prediction by now, as we don’t know how the war ends. I’m afraid this war will enter the phase of long-lasting, so more damages, lethalities, refugees to EU will come.

What is clear now – the securitization agenda will be rethinked, EU energy security will be transformed. Global chains of production will be changed. The question of food security will soon become a hot global issue since Ukraine produced around 12% of global agriculture products before the war.

In the long run I can foresee the rise of question of differentiation of democratic security communities and authoritarian ones. This war also raised the importance of missile defense systems, anti-satellite weapons and hypersonic missile defence. Therefore the development of such systems can be predicted, which means the start of a new arms race. The challenges of global democracy will become more visible, since existing international rules failed to prevent this war. I’m skeptical about the transformations in the UN Security Council, but that had to be done a long time ago. Denuclearisation principles need to be updated.

Do you think that Ukraine will be able to recover quickly? If not, what steps would be necessary for your country?

I can’t say how much time we need to rebuild the country since the war is ongoing and we don’t know the outcomes. Current estimations are quite challenging – we can lose up to 1 trillion USD. If the war turns out to be long-lasting, even more. The experience of other nations, who have witnessed war, shows that recovery will take many years. It will not be quick, even with international help. Many cities are ruined, critical infrastructure is destroyed, economic chains are broken. Croatians can say better how much time is needed for post-conflict reconstruction.