Recent events hint that Moscow may have ‘blinked’ in its stand-off with the West over Ukraine. Last week, leaders of the self-proclaimed separatist republics of the Donbas – the Donetsk and Lugansk ‘People’s Republics’ – declared publicly that the ‘Novorossiya’ project was ‘closed.’ Russian President Vladimir Putin had used the term ‘Novorossiya’ in early 2014, shortly after the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. The term referred to a ‘historically Russian’ area of Ukraine extending from Kharkiv through the Donbas and across Ukraine’s coastal areas to Odessa region. Putin’s use of it implied that Russia would try to ‘carve away’ this vast territory by force. This fear seemed validated as separatist war escalated in eastern Ukraine.
It appears that Moscow is backing away from the ‘Novorossiya’ venture and also taking steps to de-escalate the war in the Donbas. On Saturday, May 23rd, an adviser to the Ukrainian minister of internal affairs reported that the commander of the ‘Prizrak’ (Ghost) Battalion of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) and six of his bodyguards had been killed by special forces of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU – the Russian military intelligence agency), reputedly for refusing to follow orders. On the same day, Ukrainian counter-intelligence reported that Russia’s 3rd Spetsnaz (Special Operations) Brigade had hastily withdrawn from Luhansk region after the capture of two Russian GRU Spetsnaz troops on May 16th. The reported reason: fear of mutiny. At the end of April, Russian media were reporting that LNR ‘President’ Igor Plotnitsky had been detained in Moscow, and would not be returning because he had stolen humanitarian aid in Luhansk.
While none of these stories have been independently confirmed, a Russian climb-down looks credible in the context of conciliatory behavior by US Secretary of John Kerry in traveling to Sochi, Russia, to meet Putin on May 12th. Apart from exercising dubious diplomacy in meeting Putin on Russian soil, Kerry was limp-wristed on the issue of Russian supplies of S-300 missile defense systems to Iran, echoing Obama’s ‘surprise’ that the Kremlin had not made the deliveries earlier. Kerry also issued an ominous public warning to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko not to attempt to recapture the Donbas by force. Conspicuously, Kerry made no mention of Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in March 2014, making it appear that Moscow and Washington might be cutting a deal over the heads of the Ukrainians. A quid pro quo might be the lifting of Western sanctions in return for an end to Russian military support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine – but no return of Crimea. Perhaps Kerry was trying to secure Russia’s cooperation with US aims in the Middle East. Perhaps he was simply trying to prevent the US from being dragged into a war in Ukraine.
For expert insight into what Putin and his regime may be thinking, the respected Russian political analyst Andrey Piontkovsky’s recent interview with the Russian webzine Apostrophe is useful. It is reproduced in English below.
Why the ‘Novorossiya’ project has failed
Russian President Vladimir Putin has sharply changed his tactics in Ukraine and offered the West a deal. At the same time, Russia itself faces the threat of absorption by China. This and more in an interview with Russian political analyst, journalist, politician and leading researcher at the Institute for Systems Analysis of the Russian Academy of Sciences Andrey Piontkovsky for Apostrophe’s Artyom Dekhtyarenko.
– Andrey Andreyevich, representatives of the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic –Ed.] recently said that the ‘Novorossiya’ project had been terminated. What can the self-proclaimed ‘republics’ expect in this regard?
– The ‘Novorossiya’ project in its original form has been closed for a long time. This happened not because Moscow changed its intentions and became kinder to Ukraine, but simply because it failed. This project, which Putin thought about very seriously in March and April last year, was based on the inclusion of 8-10 Ukrainian regions in the new entity. And those provocations that occurred in Donetsk and Lugansk also took place in many other cities, among them Odessa and Kharkiv. However, they failed there, without having received any significant support. And, actually, ‘Novorossiya’ mutated into the so-called Lugandonia [a play on the ‘Lugansk,’ the Russian name for the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk – Ed.].
And Moscow has drastically changed its tactics. It is in any case not going to annex these depressed areas. It needs them to be like a cancer inside Ukraine, sowing chaos and instability. According to the Kremlin’s interpretation of the Minsk Agreement, Lugandonia should be a part of Ukraine (Lavrov emphasizes this ten times in a single day, in Brussels, in Paris, and elsewhere), and thus have the right of veto on the future foreign policy orientations of Ukraine.
These Zakharchenkos and Motorolas are dictating the new Constitution of Ukraine with their whole heads. [Alexander Zakharchenko is the de facto president of the DNR; ‘Motorola’ is the nickname of Arseny Pavlov, a Russian who commands one of the armed groups fighting against Ukraine on behalf of Russia – Ed.] This is a deliberate tactic of Moscow: to ‘stick’ these territories onto the makeup of Ukraine at the current stage of the conflict, so that it is possible to block Ukraine’s European choice from the inside.
– Do you think they will seek autonomy or agree to the terms of broad decentralization proposed by Ukraine?
– They have already formulated their demands, by submitting a draft of the new Constitution of Ukraine. Their demands extend much further than questions of local self-government. I have already said that there is talk there about influencing the foreign policy strategy of Ukraine, about non-aligned status, about federalization. These are the things demanded by Moscow. What Russia has been unable to take from Kyiv, it is trying to get from the Constitution written by the Motorolas and the demons.
– And what in this case indicates the accumulation of Russian troops and equipment in the Donbas?
– The accumulation of Russian troops is ongoing. A sharp increase in the Russian military budget is being fixed. But the prevailing tactic for today is the pressure on Kyiv via the preservation of the idea of Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’ as bait. A demonstration of military capabilities is parallel blackmail – not only of Ukraine, but of its Western partners: ‘Here, help us put pressure on Kyiv so that it agrees with our interpretation of the Minsk Agreement, otherwise a military escalation is possible.’ Your Western partners, of course, don’t want that. In the event of escalation, they will have to give even greater assistance to Ukraine. And they strongly want to avoid that.
– So the probability of an escalation in the Donbas in the near future is low?
– In the near future – it won’t happen. In any case, at least until the European Union’s decision on the renewal or non-renewal of sanctions. Now Moscow has declared the so-called new policy of peaceful co-existence with the West. It was very frankly formulated into a kind of seminal article by Lukyanov (Fyodor Lukyanov, Russian journalist. – Apostrophe) on April 16th in the Moscow Times: ‘Putin Wants Peaceful Coexistence With the West.’ Curiously, key provisions of this article were omitted in its Russian translation. That is why the Russian public was not aware of them. This is a direct appeal to the West, where Lukyanov explicitly recognizes that further military escalation in Russia would, as he writes, be ‘dangerous and extremely expensive.’ It is offering this deal to the West: Crimea is ours, and we keep our influence over Lugandonia, but we won’t go any further.
And this pleases the West very much. The reaction to this peaceful co-existence idea was the ‘fantastic’ visit by [John] Kerry, at which he asked for what had been written in the Russian press with great satisfaction. There, at the press conference, he happily chimed in with Lavrov, threatened Poroshenko with a wag of the finger, and never uttered the word ‘Crimea.’ In general, he behaved as Moscow would have liked within these parameters of new, peaceful co-existence. So on today’s agenda is a peaceful offensive simultaneous to a show of force: ‘If you do not respond to our peaceful aspirations, a further escalation of the conflict may follow.’
– What do you think about the suggestion that, during the last visit of John Kerry and Victoria Nuland to Sochi and Moscow, there may have been agreements concluded between Russia and the United States that did not serve the interests of Ukraine?
– It is a fact that this diplomatic activity suggests a new form of mutual relations. After all, one of the forms of the West’s opposition to the Russian Federation was the isolation of the Putin regime. Think of two television images: the first – two months ago, Lavrov was at the Munich conference, where the audience simply laughed at him and actually drove him off the stage, and these were top experts, international security experts and politicians; and the second – at the press conference in Sochi with Kerry. There, with the help of Russian journalists, Lavrov simply mocked him and drove him into a corner. These are completely different formats. Moscow seduced the West with the opportunity to declare that a peaceful settlement had been achieved. ‘Thus, we – the West – with our heroic support of Ukraine have ensured that Moscow will not go further. But what it has captured, it has captured.’
– What, in your opinion, gave Mr. Putin the confidence to seize the Crimea and start a war in the Donbas?
– He knows his Western partners well. He simply despises them. The favorite proverb of Kremlin political scientists when they describe how Putin will behave is to say that ‘for us, Ukraine is much more important than for the West.’ That is, roughly speaking, ‘for us it is much more important to rape Ukraine than for the West to protect it.’ Therefore, the game will go on by raising bets the whole time. Almost until the use of nuclear weapons. This basic method of discourse with the West – it’s just intimidated by the fact that the military conflict is dangerous for it, that Russia is more desperate, and that Putin is successfully portraying himself as a madman, saying: ‘I am willing to use nuclear weapons.’ This is a tactic of intimidation and pressure. And now even this carrot is being tossed in: ‘We’re good, and we won’t climb any further. You don’t have to be afraid of going to war with a nuclear Russia. But, really, what they’ve captured, they’ve captured.’ That kind of deal is, in fact, being proposed to the West.
– Now we see that Crimea is being transformed into a second Chechnya, to the detriment of other regions, as huge amounts of Russian money are being poured into the peninsula. Why is Vladimir Putin doing this?
– Putin is resolving his personal problems. He is resolving the question of his lifelong power. No dictator can base his power exclusively on violence. He needs some sort of inspirational idea, which at a certain time will blind a significant part of the population and draw it onto the side of the authorities… So it was in Nazi Germany, and in the Soviet Union. That Putin put forward the idea of the ‘Russian World,’ declaring it his sacred duty to protect not only citizens of Russia, but all ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world. At some point this idea was quite popular and was the ideological basis for Putin’s dictatorship. Russia’s economy is the same as the economy of Ukraine during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. It is a thieving regime of godfathers. The people at the top don’t care about the economic outlook of the country, but of holding on to power. In the context of resolving this problem, such uniting aggression was at one point the best political-technological path for the nation.
– So the occupied parts of the Donbas will be part of Ukraine, and Crimea will remain within the Russian Federation?
– I wouldn’t divide them. I think – and have spoken about this repeatedly – that the attempt to lure the Ukrainian leadership with the illusion of territorial integrity (I mean Lugandonia) must be opposed with tougher stance: both Crimea and the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions – these are captured regions of Ukraine, which does not recognize the capture. But it cannot take them back today by force. The Ukrainian army cannot fight with the full might of the Russian army. The occupying power bears full responsibility for everything that happens there. This position, it seems to me, is the most advantageous for Ukraine and will not allow it to be dragged into the kinds of scenarios wherein it would lose sovereignty over its entire territory, enticed by the phantom of alleged preservation of its territorial integrity. Anyway, this Lugandonia is fully controlled by the Russian security forces.
You see, all this time Ukraine has been frightened by Transnistria. But what Putin wants to do now is much worse. First of all, Moldova does not feed Transnistria and does not support it economically, and that’s what they are trying to make Ukraine do. And second, and more importantly, the Transnistrian field commanders are not rewriting the Constitution of Moldova, and do not have any veto rights over the determination of the country’s policy.
– During the last Victory Day parade in Moscow, we saw that of the most significant leaders in the international arena, only People’s Republic of China leader Xi Jinping came to the event. What, in your opinion, is this closeness between China and Russia evidence of?
– This is not the strengthening of ties between Russia and China. This has long been coming, but after the Ukrainian crisis, the process of Russia’s absorption by China dramatically intensified. After all, a symbolic thing happened at that parade, something that had not happened in the thousand-year history of Russia. In the parade in front of the Russian leaders – indeed, what Russian leaders – sitting there in the middle was Putin with Mr. Jinping and his wife. Medvedev and the other members of the Russian political beau monde weren’t even there. A parade was held of three services of the Chinese Armed Forces: Army, Air Force and Navy.
For the Chinese, who attach great importance to symbols, it was a kind of victory parade. It was a foretaste of their total victory over Russia. By the way, I remind you that about a year ago, also in May, at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in the presence of Putin and Medvedev, the second man in the Chinese hierarchy, Prime Minister Li said the following: ‘You have – the Russians have – a large territory, and we have a lot of hard-working Chinese people. Let us join these resources to enhance our overall economic potential.’ The Chinese have never allowed themselves to speak with such blatant arrogance. They are fully confident that Putin’s Russia, by cutting itself off from Western civilization, has become very easy prey. Moreover, there are rather influential schools of political-scientific thought in Russia that welcome this process, that consider the Golden Horde to be the Golden Age of Russian history. They believe the process of Russia’s absorption by China to be Russia’s return to its deepest historical roots. There is truth to this. And in many ways, in my opinion, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is to a significant extent the conflict between the heirs of Kievan Rus and the heirs of the Golden Horde.
– But at the same time we see that the West’s attitude to Russia is changing: the parliament of the Czech Republic has not ratified the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, Hungary is agreeing to cooperate with Russia in the energy sector, and so on. Could the break-up of Europe and the lifting of sanctions occur in this context?
– Germany plays the key role in the European Union. Here we must pay due tribute to the consistent policy of Merkel. Thanks to Europe’s response, the dismemberment of Ukraine was tougher than either I or, very likely, your audience expected. Merkel has to face dual pressures: German business, which wants to further develop its relations with Russia, to make money and close its eyes to anything it doesn’t want to see, and Putin’s fifth column in the EU, at the forefront of which, paradoxically, are the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – a country that, more than anyone else, should remember the years 1956 and 1968 (when Soviet troops suppressed popular demonstrations in these countries – Apostrophe), and more than anyone should feel sympathy for Ukraine. Merkel’s experience of living in the GDR is a plus. She understands very well the Chekist psychology of Putin, his mentality. She knows who she is dealing with. Merkel is a person whose youth was spent in a state run by the Stasi.
Kerry represents quite the opposite example. I’m not very enthusiastic about Obama’s policy, but Kerry is simply a clinical idiot. He doesn’t understand who he is dealing with, how they are using him, how they are mocking him, and how they are rubbing his face in it. That’s the nature of the West’s misunderstanding of the Putin regime: the idea that this is the same kind of regime as in other G8 members, and that it’s possible to reach agreement – this is what defines the weakness of the West. Still, the West did understand something small this year. It realizes that the unqualified success, the triumph of Putin in Ukraine makes his next move in implementing the ‘Russian World’ concept inevitable.
The polite little green men will appear in the Baltics. And there will be a completely different layout there. It will be impossible to say there, as Obama and Rasmussen (former Secretary General NATO – Apostrophe) said on the first day of the seizure of the Crimea: ‘Ukraine is not a NATO member, and we have no military obligation to the country. Therefore, we exclude any military intervention.’ There [in the Baltics -Ed.], the West will face an agonizing dilemma: either demonstrate a complete collapse of the NATO alliance by failing to fulfill its obligations for the protection of NATO member countries, or go to war with a nuclear power that is constantly threatening to use nuclear weapons.
Therefore, the West will in its own interests take steps, limiting the expansion of Russia in Ukraine, and – in my opinion – the boundaries of this compromise are already defined. The West will be forced to react to further military escalation by Putin, both with tougher economic sanctions against Russia and supplies of weapons to Ukraine. But now it will convince Ukraine to agree to Putin’s set of conditions for peaceful coexistence: Crimea is ours, and Lugandonia will be retained within Ukraine, enjoying huge rights not only of local self-government, but blocking the country’s foreign policy path as a whole…
– You mentioned an interesting detail, that at the Victory Parade Vladimir Putin distanced himself from some representatives of the Russian elite. This raises the question: how is the power vertical arranged in Russia? Does anyone have influence with Vladimir Putin?
– He probably has to reckon with someone. Well, for example, with [President of Chechnya] Ramzan Kadyrov. But in any case, not with Medvedev. Medvedev is a complete and utter non-entity – an ‘iPhone-chik.’ That’s my brand. I named him that. He is seen that way. In Russia, of course, there are different points of view: there is the party of peace and the party of the war. The position of the party of peace is: ‘Yes, Vladimir Vladimirovich. You won a great victory. Crimea is ours! Let’s obsess over yet another thing. Do not let the damned Americans drag us into direct military conflict in Ukraine, which could become a second Afghanistan for us. Don’t worry: we will strangle Ukraine by economic and political means. Without the direct use of regular troops.’ That’s how the party of peace differs from the war party, which demands full-scale aggression.
Putin listens to them. He maneuvers. Different views exist with regard to Chechnya. During the investigation into the murder of Nemtsov, it became clear that the FSB wanted to use this killing – in which it was itself apparently involved – to limit the power of Kadyrov or even remove him. Putin definitely does not like this. Some conflicts and discussions arise, as in any human collective, as in the Politburo of the Russian kleptocracy. But on the whole, Putin is maintaining control, acting as the mediator of different clans.
– And does a conflict between Putin and Kadyrov really exist, as the media is bleating about?
– There is another conflict. The siloviki [state officials of the ‘power’ ministries, such as defense, security, internal affairs and intelligence – Ed.] have long hated Kadyrov. Basically, they have disliked Putin’s ‘Project Kadyrov’ all along. After all, Putin actually gave all the power to Kadyrov and his forces. He even pays tribute to him in the form of budgetary transfers. That is, Kadyrov has more independence than Dudayev and Maskhadov (both of whom led the movement for the independence of Chechnya at different times – Apostrophe) could dream. The only thing he does is he formally declares loyalty not even to Russia, but to Putin personally. The security officials believe that Putin has deprived them of what they call victory in Chechnya. Victory for them would be the genocide of the Chechen population, as was done by General Shamanov and Colonel Budanov. And here, in the investigation into the murder of Nemtsov, they found the chance to publicly express their dissatisfaction with Kadyrov.
But Putin cannot hand over Kadyrov. [Putin’s] legitimacy largely depends on him. Do you remember how he (Vladimir Putin – Apostrophe) came to power? Explosions in buildings were organized, and we were told: ‘Here’s a heroic intelligence officer who will protect us from the terrorists.’ After that, it was announced that Putin had won in Chechnya. And if now it turns out that Kadyrov is a criminal, then at a minimum he has to remove him… But how do you remove him if he has a battle-ready army numbering in the tens of thousands?
So begins a third Chechen war, and this is absolutely unacceptable for Putin. So he will never surrender Kadyrov. And, judging by recent events in the development of the conflict, Putin has proposed some sort of compromise, which Kadyrov and the militants have agreed to. That is that the killer [of Nemtsov] is some Dadayev [the name of a Chechen security official who killed himself in Chechnya soon after Nemtsov’s killing – Ed.], and it all ends with him. He is the contractor and the organizer.
– In the previous answer you used the word ‘kleptocracy.’ In connection with this, your article of 2010 – ‘How we can defeat the kleptocracy’ – co-written with Alexei Kondaurov, immediately springs to memory. In it, among other things, you talked about a single candidate from the opposition forces. Is there such a candidate in Russia now, and was Nemtsov one?
– Boris Nemtsov was definitely not considered in that article. Then, on the eve of the presidential election, they talked about the kind of candidate who could unite both the left and the liberal opposition. Now this issue has lost all relevance. Any fight against the authoritarian regime, including by parliamentary means, using elections, requires two factors. The first is a kind of mass protest movement on the street (this doesn’t mean that there has to be a majority of the population, as all revolutions are made by an active minority). There was such a movement in 2011-2012, when just such problems were being discussed in connection with our article. 100,000-150,000 demonstrators came out to the protests. But a second factor is also needed. It is what happened in all revolutions in both Eastern European and the Middle East, and in the Ukrainian revolution. A split of the elites is absolutely necessary. These are two processes inducing each other: the protest movement on the street and the split of elites.
Look at Egypt: up to a million came out there, but nothing moved as long as the generals decided not to oppose Mubarak. So here in Russia, December 2011 was very busy for the government. It was the perfect moment to split the elites. But they showed their solidarity: not the slightest hint of a split. I assure you that if there were such signals, such as the resignation of half of the members of the government or any movements of those same iPhone-chiks, the next day it would not have been 100, but 500 thousand people on the street. There was no kind of split. The Russian elite has shown that it is unhappy with Putin, even afraid of him. But more than that it is afraid to remain without Putin, one on one with society. All of the Russian elites are linked by common crimes, common theft, a common origin of their wealth. Then and now, during the Ukrainian crisis, they have once again shown their solidarity. Their personal, selfish interests are more precious to them than the fate of the country. See how this absolute conformity of our so-called elite prolongs the agony of the Putin regime. But it is making the finale more dramatic.
– What can still facilitate this split?
– The history of Russia says that the split of elites and radical changes in the country facilitate major foreign policy defeats. None of us want an escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, but if Putin goes for this escalation – and that really would be a crazy move – it will end in a crushing defeat. This defeat will accelerate the split of elites and the fall of the Putin regime. But it would be cynical to wish to achieve this goal by such means.
– In that article five years ago, in 2010, you wrote about the kleptocracy, about the elite… How much has the situation in Russia changed since that time?
– The position has worsened. It has been an experiment. History created a social experiment in 2011-2012: are the so-called systemic liberals or some other group within the elite ready to support the protest movement? The experiment indicated that they were not. They were not ready. And without the support of the elite, the protest movement is doomed to failure. The result of this experiment inspired Putin. He showed that his rear was strong enough, on the one hand, and on the other hand, in order to provide mass ideological support, he went on an adventure, which for some time created the illusion of patriotic enthusiasm and popular support. But even that was not the main reason for the aggression against Ukraine. Putin was really frightened by the Association Agreement between Ukraine and Europe. In it, he saw the prospect of Ukraine moving on a European course – on the path of reform, providing political and economic competition. This movement was very dangerous for Putin, because it would have created an inspiring example for Russia.
– What do you think about another topical theme: the capture of the Russian soldiers in the Donbas? What kind of reaction has this caused in Russia?
Shortly before our interview I listened to the transmission of Echo Moskvy [‘Echo of Moscow’ – Ed.], in which the audience was simply asked: ‘Who is to blame: the government, or these two people?’ And the majority – about 80%? – responded that responsibility lay with the state. And this is indeed true. This is an important situation.
For example, the war criminal Motorola – whom, I hope, will be convicted at some point – he went there voluntarily, at the call of his Motorola heart. He went to kill, including unarmed prisoners. And the two men, the sergeant and the officer, followed orders. And the guilty party is, of course, the state, in giving such a criminal order. Generally, these are not the first people who have found themselves at the hands of Ukrainian security officials. It’s just that until recently, the Ukrainian authorities and Poroshenko, who holds his talks with Putin. have avoided putting Moscow in an awkward position.
I was very impressed by the recent interview of Poroshenko, in which he says that he doesn’t trust Putin but is forced to negotiate with him because he wants to prevent a war. However, the most recent steps of the Ukrainian leadership suggest that it is becoming increasingly difficult for him not to call a spade a spade for the sake of preserving some sort of trustworthy channels of communication with Moscow. I think the intention to put these military personnel on trial is evidence of this, to prove to Western and Russian public opinion the fact of the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. And the decision to break military-technical cooperation with Moscow. The Ukrainian authorities are getting closer to full realism in relations with Russia.
– What, in your opinion, will result from the exchange of threats about weapons: the United States has long been considering the possibility of supplying lethal types of weapons to Ukraine, and Russia is allegedly ready to sell Iran the S-300 [Russian-made missile defense system – Ed.]?
– Russia does not threaten to supply the S-300 systems. It just delivers them. The supply agreement was frozen and has now resumed. At the same conference in Sochi, Kerry made a strange statement. He said everything was all right. With regard to the supply of weapons by the United States, public opinion there is very firmly on the side of Ukraine. It seems to be that Obama is also not a very big fan of Putin. He just saves this step in the event of military escalation. After all, he’ll have to react somehow. That’s why Moscow has also come to the conclusion that military escalation would be more dangerous and much more costly for it.
– How do you see future relations between Ukraine and Russia? What should be done to ensure that they once again become warm and friendly?
– For this the Putin regime must fall. While Putin is in power, until the last day, until the last breath of his political life, he will continue to try to strangle Ukraine by all means available to him.