Heikki Patomäki: We need better global institutions – the war in Ukraine is a symptom of deeper problems

We are approaching one month since the outbreak of fighting in Ukraine. In an interview with Professor Heikki Patomäki, we talked about possible outcomes of the war, its systemic causes, and the Finnish position towards Russia and NATO.

The Russian invasion to Ukraine has been an ongoing conflict for almost a month. Although the Russian advancement is generally viewed as slow and the Ukrainian forces inflict heavy casualties upon the aggressor, the toll is high: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights records more than 2,500 injured or killed civilians, and 3,6 million people already fled the country. While the world is witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe, the peace talks haven’t yet reached any substantial progress and Russia itself is sinking deeper into international isolation.

We discuss the conflict with Heikki Patomäki, a Professor in World Politics at the University of Helsinki, a founding member of the Helsinki Centre for Global Political Economy, and a teacher in the Global Politics and Communications programme.


In an interview for Iltalehti at the end of February, you presented three possible scenarios of the war: first, Putin’s position will weaken as a consequence of domestic disapproval; second, Russia will reach its goal quickly and the situation will gradually calm down; or third, the conflict will further escalate. In the light of these three scenarios, where do you think we are now, after almost three weeks into the war?

As these things go by, one has to reassess. It’s obvious that the scenario of Russian victory is already out of date. It was a possibility but I didn’t take it very seriously. One of the reasons why I underestimated the possibility of this kind of a full-scale attack was precisely that even from a very narrow military point of view it does not seem possible to occupy the entire country of Ukraine with some 150,000 troops. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, he had 4 million men, when Stalin attacked Finland, he had 400,000 and then at the war almost 600,000 men and was still unable to conquer Finland. Ukraine is a country of more than 40 million people. They have doubled military expenditure since 2014 and they have been receiving a lot of Western military assistance as well as the training and so and so forth. So I didn’t think it would be rational for Putin to start a war even if he only thought from that very narrow point of view because success seemed so unlikely.

But let me now start from the premise of peace and conflict studies: from the history of many international conflicts since 1945, we know that the clear majority of them ends in some kind of mutual peace agreement. It would be the best possible scenario for ending this conflict relatively quickly. It would have to be something that Putin can present as an achievement of their goals, including military non-alliance of Ukraine, the Minsk agreement or something equivalent, and one or two other things perhaps.

The problem is of course that every day when more people are getting killed, more cities are being destroyed, more bitterness is being instigated. So every day when a peace settlement is postponed, a protracted war is more likely. But protracted war as such is also an unlikely scenario: this is not going to be another Vietnam or Afghanistan. From my point of view, a long conflict is likely to escalate further and ultimately there is the spectre of nuclear war.

Obviously, the one scenario that we didn’t yet discuss is some kind of an internal change in Russia. But that is also quite complicated because a revolution or coup-d’état would be unconstitutional and both would lead to a destabilisation of the Russian society. It is not only that we are going to see some kind of return to the chaotic 1990s but there is also a possibility of civil strife, even war. Many Westerners and at the moment many politicians and a lot of people in the media are thinking that the harder the sanctions the better because that will lead to some kind of a breakdown of the Russian economy leading to a regime change. But they hardly consider the consequences. Even if someone would be able to again stabilise the situation in Russia, it is relatively likely to be a dictatorship. So even though we can imagine a possible scenario where democratic forces in Russia will win, I don’t think it is the most likely scenario.

I want to ask about the sanctions more specifically since this is the main Western response. In an article for Helsingin Sanomat, you said that the previous sanctions didn’t work, that they didn’t hurt the elites and the economy was actually able to adapt to them. Do you think that the current sanctions work, only not in a way that would be constructive?

These very intensive and extensive sanctions are unprecedented. They do hurt the economy but they also hurt the ordinary people and not only in Russia and what is more, they don’t necessarily lead to any positive political change. There is also a tendency that once you establish these sanctions, they will stay for many years. Even if there is a regime change in Russia it doesn’t necessarily mean their abolition. From the Russian point of view, this means two possibilities – either import substitution or refocussing on the Asian markets. They have already been doing both since 2014 and they will be doing much more in the coming years.

They are facing some problems, in particular, the import substitution strategy: the scale that we are seeing now is hard to substitute. The situation might have been different 30 years ago when there was still a very extensive Soviet industrial base but during the past 30 years, they have been hardly able to re-develop any new industries, they are still very fossil fuel dependent and the only sector where they are technologically relatively competitive is the military and space sector. That means that they don’t have the capacity to substitute imports on this scale. They can however re-focus on the Asian markets. I don’t see any major problem there, over time they are very likely to find substitutes for the Western markets.


Do you think this reorientation can happen quickly? I have heard differing opinions on this, some people are saying that yes, it can happen, but others argue that it can take years, and also that for example the Chinese are buying Russian oil, but for dumping prices so that it is not a very good alliance for Russia.

As far as the price of the oil is concerned, my understanding is that the Chinese are paying the world market price. They may be able to deviate from that to a certain degree but not much. And China is not the only market in the East; there are other places including India which is a country of nearly 1.4 billion people at the moment and growing economy. It is more difficult to re-channel the gas trade because of the pipelines, which would have to be built, but of course, you can use liquidated gas, which is easier to transport.

China is one of the key players in the conflict. So far, the Chinese internet and state media seem to be very pro-Russia, but on the other hand, the government didn’t take a strong position and seems to be trying to remain neutral. Where do you think Xi Jinping sees the future Chinese position and China’s relationship with Russia?

China has interests both in Ukraine and Russia, that’s one thing. They are very strongly in favour of the principle of territorial integrity and international politics, which the Russians have obviously violated, so they can’t simply be on their side. But on the other hand, they also take distance and like many people in the global South argue that NATO expansion and the US arrogance are really key causes of the conflict. They don’t want to take a very strong stance, they would rather abstain than take a position on the Western side. But they also don’t take a position on the Russian side.

There are other complexities, some of them related to political economy, some others related to the specific Chinese interpretation of certain things in international politics, and also issues like Taiwan. The Chinese say very strongly and quite aggressively that Taiwan is a totally different case: whereas Ukraine is an independent sovereign country recognised by other states and international law, Taiwan is not. Taiwan is a part of China, full stop. This is in accordance with international law: most countries have not recognised Taiwan as a fully sovereign state. The key reason is precisely the strong position of China on this.

Let’s focus on the deeper systemic problems. You are an advocate for world government, but you also argue that the end of the Cold War was a lost opportunity for actually creating functional global institutions and that now we see the problems of what happened when they were not created. Do you think that such a window of opportunity can arise from this conflict?

First of all, this is the first time I hear that I am a proponent of world government. It is true though, that I am writing a book on the world state and trying to reframe the whole problem in terms of processes, ontology, and a very different way of thinking about what the state might be; if people think in terms of replicating the institutions of the existing national states on a global scale, I am not a proponent of the world state. I am strongly in favour of building better common global institutions and I think that is the key issue.

As you mentioned, the 1990s was a lost opportunity. At the end of the Cold War, some of the global debates about the world state re-emerged, and very often they were framed in terms of global democracy, global justice, or global governance. There was a real historical opportunity.

During the Cold War, everything seemed to be frozen for many decades and it seemed totally unrealistic to discuss the things that had been very much discussed in the 1930s and particularly the 1940s where there was a strong world federalist movement and debate about how to organise the future of world including governance of the world economy. Key moments of that era include negotiations that led to the Bretton-Woods system and the establishment of the United Nations. At the time, also much more ambitious plans were seriously discussed. The world federalist movement was quite strong until 1947 when the Cold War properly started. Then all of a sudden it appeared that these kinds of conversations were no longer “realistic”. The so-called political realists were nonetheless arguing in favour of a world state, like Hans Morgenthau did in his Politics Among Nations. But Morgenthau always said that given the circumstances we have to be content with wise diplomacy and functional cooperation for the time being. Within his lifetime, he died in the 1980s, it was not possible to progress further.

But then came the end of the Cold War and Gorbachev for instance started to talk about the possibility of establishing something like a social democratic world state. He put forward some really radical proposals that were very reminiscent of those that we heard at the time and in the aftermath of the First and Second World War. But in the Soviet Union, for instance, the only people with that kind of consciousness at the time were the top elites; people didn’t have access to the resources to think about things in a different light or discuss them publicly. So what happened when the Soviet Union started to dissolve was the re-emergence of very traditional beliefs involving nationalism, religion, and all the rest of it. Meanwhile in the West, the learning that we saw in the 1930s and 1940s was in a way cancelled and we went back to the idea that it is enough to have free trade and private property rights established across the world through the WTO and the classical orthodox policy imposed by the Bretton-Woods institutions.

There was a point in the 1990s, particularly in the early 1990s, when the leaders of the Western world could have seized the opportunity to create something quite different and indeed there were public intellectuals arguing that something like that should be done. But the Fukuyama story about the victory of the West, seen as the victory of free markets and democracy, seized the day and it seemed the voices of the opposition and alternative stories about world history were quickly marginalised. That led to the shock therapy in the 1990s with all the catastrophic consequences, paving the way to the Putin regime in Russia.

History is never linear, it is chaotic and messy, whatever progression there may be is never happening in a totally dominant way, there are periods of regression, history is always both complex and complicated. Unfortunately, what we have been seeing recently is not only complicated or complex but dominantly regressive. My reading of the Ukrainian war is that this is a possible outcome of that process and I have been anticipating for a while, gradually assembling the conditions for the possibility of some kind of a global military catastrophe. This is definitely and most unfortunately a step in that direction.

Do you think there is a possibility that the world leaders would be able to sit down and make some kind of reform as for example what was done after the Second World War, or is this not an option now?

It is always an option. The thing is history is for many reasons a very bad teacher: we can’t simply test what will follow, we are dependent on counterfactuals that we can never prove and we can never be certain that one action will lead to a particular outcome. And also, there are hegemonic ways of framing the lessons from history. If there is a peace agreement relatively shortly, or a regime change in Russia leading to positive changes in Ukraine, which is in one sense a very good result, given the prevailing framework in the neoliberal West it simply means that they will think they have been right all along: there was this bad regime and this bad guy in Russia, all the blame is on him, and we simply continue along the same path – until there will be a total catastrophe of some sort. 

That is not rational. Perhaps the real threat of nuclear war at this point could wake them up. It is absurd that we have given a few men sitting in a few capitals the power to annihilate the industrial civilisation. Perhaps some kind of a realisation of that might lead to rethinking. But at the moment the very spontaneous way of thinking about this crisis in terms of how bad Russia and Putin’s regime are makes it very difficult to learn anything except whether the actions taken have been efficient or not; not to rethink any of the basic premises of what we have been doing.

There are some other signs of learning outside the field of military security, for instance since the global financial crash there has been a shift in the mainstream understanding of economic policy, a new role of central banks, unconventional monetary policy, international agreements that are fairly positive such as G20/OECD agreement on the taxation of multinational corporations which actually includes Russia and China. Those signs of learning might mean that we see a shift in the underlying premises, the framework could change somewhat in the future. However, there are also people who are deeply sceptical about the human condition: they say that the failure to seize the opportunity in 1945 and after the Cold War means that it is unlikely that real learning will take place before some extensive catastrophe.

One of my favourite futurist thinkers, W. Warren Wagar, wrote a book called A Short History of the Future, I refer to it sometimes in my lectures and writings. It is a beautiful book, partly based on H. G. Wells’ Shape of Things to Come and partly on world-systems analysis and that kind of political economy thinking. It is also a story about a family of historians: generations of them are writing letters about the recent past and so on and the story goes into the 23rd century, so you can imagine the present from the point of view of the future.

It sounds a little bit like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Yes, there are some similarities but this is much less optimistic about the possibility of galactic civilisation. The whole story ends when in the 23rd-century humanity has sent the first interstellar exploration and they find some archaeological remains of a civilisation that has existed a very long time ago somewhere, but apart from that, the galaxy appears empty.

It is a very fascinating story: humanity has to face a huge disaster, the nuclear war, in the 2040s, and the main lesson lies in the limited ability of humanity to learn. This is not unlike what Kant wrote in the late 18th century. Kant actually tried to develop a theory of history which was ultimately some kind of a story about human collective learning. But in that story, humans can only learn like Pavlov’s dogs: once you get a sufficient amount of electric shock then you learn but not otherwise. Unfortunately, what is unfolding before our eyes is a world historical experiment about whether Kant and Wagar were right…

My last question is about Finland and its position towards NATO. For a long time, the Finnish public was against joining NATO but now for the first time, there was a majority saying yes, we should join. Of course, I want to know your opinion, but can you also describe the background of this particular public conversation?

First of all, the sudden turn in what was before a very stable set of public opinion is simply due to fear that something like that may also happen in Finland. People seem to be relating themselves to this war in a very different way: this in Europe, this is close, there are the historical memories about the Winter War and Russia as the eternal enemy, etc. It’s a regressive historical moment as we are turning to stories that were very prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s, when some people were defining Finland as the outermost post of Western civilisation against the barbarism of Russian bolshevism. 

This is in sharp contrast to the case after the Second World War when some kind of a new understanding of our Eastern neighbour emerged: there was this thinking that the Soviets are a bit funny and not always that developed in all regards but they can be our friends and we can cooperate with them and do things together in a mutually beneficial way. A very different understanding from the Cold War West, much more neutral and complex. And Finland also benefited from the Soviet trade.

After the end of the Cold War, most Finns have become alienated from Russia. Before we had more contact, many Finns went to Leningrad and they had first-hand experience about Russia and the Soviet Union. But after the Cold War, it became more distant; in the 1990s it was also a place to fear quite a lot because of the level of chaos and criminality. But no one saw Russia as an enemy. This situation continued until 2014; then for the first time, you saw a significant change in polls about the NATO membership. As the conflict became more latent, the public opinion stabilised, but now it changed again. What I hear around me is a total Cold War mentality: the Russians are not only bad but there is no way we can ever cooperate with them again. I think this combination of hatred and fear is behind the reaction to the NATO membership so it’s a kind of a gut feeling more than a rational argument. It is the idea that bigger guns can bring about security.

My own take is that if you think very narrowly and short-sightedly it is possible to think that, yes, if Finland was a member of NATO an attack from Russia might be less likely. But on the other hand: the process will take time, it can be seen as a major provocation against Russia, and it is likely to be a step in the direction of escalation of the conflict between Russia and the West. So I don’t think Finland will be safe in a world which is heading toward a nuclear war. There is no direct military threat to Finland at the moment, and despite the sanctions which mean there is less trade between Finland and Russia, Finland is still trading with Russia quite a lot. So that is the situation, and I would urge caution and long-term thinking about what would make Finland as a part of the world secure.

So do you think that if some kind of peace agreement with Ukraine is reached, the Finnish support for NATO will die down, or some changes might actually happen?

When something dramatic happens and people say that after this nothing will be the same, they are almost always wrong; there is always at least some continuity and there are always possibilities for various directions. Nevertheless, it is true that the war in Ukraine will change things for years to come as processes such as rebuilding trust take time. This will be reflected also in support for NATO membership.


Professor Patomäki has also participated in the pannel discussion titled "How to Support Democracy in Ukraine" organized by the University of Helsinki on March 7 in Tiedekulma / Think Corner. Recording of the discussion is available here (in Finnish only).

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