Putin’s war on Ukraine: Quo Vadis?
In the last two months since Russia commenced a “special military operation” against Ukraine, it has become abundantly clear that things did not go the way President Vladimir Putin wanted. Failing to capture Kyiv in the early days of the war, the Russian military shifted its focus to the eastern parts of Ukraine in late March. However, except few operational gains, on this front too, Russians have not so far achieved their strategic goals. With Moscow keen to spread its control over Southern Ukraine along the Black Sea coast and Ukraine keen to push back Russian attacks with the military assistance of its Western partners, the war will likely continue in the foreseeable future with serious implications not only for the European security system but also for the domestic power games in Russia. We sat down with Profesor Taras Kuzio, a prominent Ukraine expert, to discuss different aspects of the war and its repercussions for future peace in wider Eurasia.
R.H: To begin with, I have two questions about the strategic rationale behind Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. So, what was the primary motivation for the Russian leadership to take such a bold decision as occupying large chunks of Ukrainian territory? Could this mess be attributed only to the personal ambitions of some people in the Kremlin? And do you think the war was inevitable because Russia and Ukraine had become systemic rivals?
T.K: I think that it would be wrong to say it was inevitable, but certainly this was a Putin-driven invasion. I think that probably the majority of people believed this military threat was a bluff, that they didn't think it would translate into an invasion because the idea of a full-scale military invasion in Europe in the 21st century was something a bit weird to believe. But at the same time, what I would say most Western experts on Russia ignored was that the rhetoric and discourse that the Kremlin leaders were using was what they had been using for at least ten years prior to the invasion. So many of them now have egg on their faces. For example, Vladimir Putin had long claimed that the whole concept of Ukraine is a failed state. Ukraine is a U.S. puppet. There is no Ukraine. There are no Ukrainians that the whole of south and east Ukraine is really Russian land. It was wrongly included in Ukraine by Lenin. All of those things were being said repeatedly for at least ten years prior to the invasion and on top of that, for nearly two decades since the mid-2000s. Russian TVs on a daily basis were dehumanizing Ukrainians, accusing them of being basically peasant idiots. No civilization. There is no Ukraine language, there is no Ukraine, and there are no Ukrainians. They are just basically little Russians. These fascists have come to power and imposed a regime that is hostile to Russian speakers.
All of those things were being repeated daily that anybody who is hostile to the Russian world is a Nazi. Nazi supported by Washington. All of that was being repeated. So, all of the groundwork for the invasion was laid 10 or 15 years prior to the invasion. And that's the only way you can explain why the invasion is so vicious, so aggressive. Because on the one hand, you talk about the idea that Ukrainians and Russians are supposed to be brotherly peoples. And then how do you explain this aggression? How do you explain the raping, the war crimes, and the destruction of cities? And the only way you can explain it is that dehumanization. Now, there are two additional factors, which I think you have to take into account as well. I think that if you look at the video and photographic images of Vladimir Putin in 2022, you could see this is not the same person as in 2014. You just look at his face and the way he walks. So, there's something going on with his health. Now, of course, there's plenty of speculation. Is this some kind of thyroid cancer or is this an early Parkinson's disease because he has to hold onto tables when he stands up or when he sits down. But certainly, this could be an explanation as to why he thinks he hasn't got much time left on the Earth.
If it's Parkinson's, for example, you don't die from Parkinson's. But eventually, over a period of time, you become incapacitated. So your macho image is gone. That means that you need to quickly accomplish your goals for your life. And Putin's goal, since he returned to the presidency in 2012 was he was going to go into Russian history as the gatherer of Russian lands. And the key country in this project is Ukraine. So, if he believes that he does not have another 20 years, he does not have another five or ten years, then that could also explain why the invasion happened now and not another time. I think the final factor is that we had the coronavirus crisis for the last two years. Putin was very isolated. He probably read too many books, particularly books of white Russian émigrés, because he began republishing these books and bringing back the dead bodies of white Russian émigré writers and generals. He began doing this in 2005, and these white Russian émigrés all denied the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians. And so I think these all fed into his decisions with regard to Ukraine. In his long essay, which was published in July of 2021, he brings together all the things that he's been saying and what his regime has been saying for 15 years. I think what happens in Ukraine now could finally push the Western countries to wake up to this problem that maybe this is a national identity crisis for Russia, the very problem people like me were already talking about but nobody was really listening to in recent years.
People were actually saying that this was a problem with NATO's enlargement. But I think it is a mixture of all of those things. It's still stunning, really, surprising to think that an invasion has happened on this scale. But one final thing I would say is Putin completely miscalculated. Completely, and he miscalculated in three areas. I think he miscalculated, of course, about Ukraine and Ukrainians because he just assumed that Ukraine is a ‘Little Russians’. They are controlled by a small group of nationalists. If we kill those nationalists, then these little Russians will greet us with bread and salt. This is a product of Russian nationalism being unable to see Ukraine as a separate country and also an inability of Russian nationalists to understand the concept of Russian speaking patriotism, whether it's Azerbaijan, Ukraine, or whichever former Soviet country. I mean, just because you speak Russian in Ukraine does not make you a supporter of the Russian world. So, they don't that is something they didn't understand. That's one miscalculation on Ukraine. They also expected Zelensky whom they never respected to surrender in the early days of war. He's just a clown who would easily run away. And there was another miscalculation, though. It was about the scope of would-be Western reaction. Both Russians and the Chinese don't understand the West. So, they were so convinced by the Western blunders in different parts of the globe.
R.H: They didn't predict this level of consolidation.
T.K: The Russians and Chinese think that the West is in moral decay or stagnation, you know, LGBT rights, multiculturalism, erosion of national sovereignty, disunity, and corruption. They were wrong. Now, they were wrong partly because of the Western message delivered in 2014. Western sanctions against Russia were a joke and many of those sanctions were breached by Western countries like France and Germany who were continuing to sell arms to Russia. So the West sent the signal that Russia’s military aggression could go unpunished neither in Georgia where we did not see any serious sanctions package nor in 2014 when only moderate sanctions were levied on Moscow. Russia thinks it can afford military aggression to bolster its hegemony in the region with limited sanctions. It was not an existential problem for the Russian economy. But this time, they were wrong because what happened was crossing the red line that transformed the West’s attitude to the Russian conduct in the neighbourhood in its entirety. The West became more united under the NATO and EU umbrella. The EU became a security actor in a big way. They never imagined at all that they would impose Iranian-style sanctions on Russia. And one of the ways you can see this is the rhetorical change in Germany because if they had expected this level of Western response, Putin would have waited six months. Nord Stream 2 would have begun. And then they could start military operations. But now it is too late. They did not expect Germany to cancel Nord Stream 2 that easily.
R.H: Yes. That was unexpected for Russians.
T.K: Therefore, I say the Russian leadership completely miscalculated. And I think the third miscalculation was inside Russia. As of now, Levada Center polls talk about a large number of Russians supporting the military operation. But this is typical of the early phases of any military operation, the kind of rallying around the flag effect. But once Russia loses a significant amount of its manpower on the battlefield and once the impact of sanctions begins to work, Putin's regime enters the danger zone. This also partly explains Putin’s conundrum at the moment. With the launch of the so-called “special military operation”, he expected a very quick victory and he thought it would end in a few days that there would not be a need for full military mobilization. Now, the Russian population supports the “special military operation”, which they view as a small, limited operation. If Putin moves to a full military operation, full military mobilization, and conscription, would the Russian population support this? I don't think so. Or it would be less popular and people would begin to demand information. How many people have died? What's going on? Why? Why are we doing so badly? Why was our equipment being destroyed?
R.H: You spoke about miscalculation as the war is in its third month. Can we already characterize the situation on the ground as the failure of the Russian side, or do you think the Kremlin has still something to perform?
T.K: No, it is a failure. A complete failure. They wanted to capture Kyiv because, of course, that is the capital city. And the expectation was to capture it in two days. That has failed. And I don't know whether they will ever try to do that again. They failed because of staunch Ukrainian defense outside Kyiv and also because they were worried about the number of troops they would lose trying to capture the city. We are talking about a city of 4 million and every building had a javelin or a stinger. So, I don't know. In this case, Plan A is gone. They've also failed to take Odessa, which has a symbolic and operational value as well. That was crucial because the Russian goal for many years, not just now, has been to take control of Ukraine's Black Sea coast, which would basically destroy the Ukrainian economy. And I don't think that's going to be possible now because they tried to do it from land, through the Mykolaiv region, and then from the sea. Both have failed. They just assumed that Odessa was full of Russian speakers and Jews and that they would all welcome the Russians. That was not true. So, those two big plans, big components of Plan A have failed. So now he's talking about two other goals, which is taking control of all of the Donbas.
Before the war, the separatist republics controlled 40% of the Donbas region, and now they want to extend it to the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk. I do not think that is possible. And the reason is that Russian troops are basically launching a frontal assault against well-defended positions that have been created over eight years. So, Ukrainian troops are very well dug-in and they're very experienced. Therefore, Russians are trying to go around them. But again, that's not working. So, I expect big battles where Ukraine could use a lot of this new weaponry it acquired from the Western partners. These high-level technology offensive weapons will be used in the south and east. This is where I think the next major battles will take place because, to be honest, I don't think the Russians care much about Donbas. Donbas has no symbolic value in Russian nationalism. Russian symbolism revolves mainly around the so-called Novorossiya project where Odessa has a crucial place. I think we should now try to get hold of this new policy, which Putin's been talking about since 2008 and especially after 2012. That's where plan C or plan B may be put into use. However, the Russian military is going to have a problem of all sorts emanating from corruption, lack of morale, incompetent leaders, out-of-date military strategy, tactics, and officers. All of these things cannot be changed overnight.
If they failed in Kyiv, you cannot change them in the southeast or in the Donbas. You can't retrain an army in two weeks. So, I think the Russian campaign will always suffer from Putin's imposition of deadlines. There is political interference of sorts that doesn't happen in Western countries. In the Western-style military, whether it is Azerbaijan, Turkey, or Ukraine political leaders give goals and then let the military officers go ahead and realize those goals. But in Russia, Vladimir Putin keeps interfering, keeps demanding deadlines. He is actually embarrassed by this. Has he been successful with this undertaking? He has united the world against Russia. 40 countries are now giving weapons to Ukraine. I mean, that has just never happened in history. Interestingly, it is not just NATO countries. It is also non-NATO and neutral countries like Japan, for example. Russia is isolated internationally. Russia is isolated in Eurasia. Even its traditional Eurasian allies have kind of left it, except Belarus. The Russian economy has basically been wiped out and its performance level returned to the early nineties. Thirty years of development have been thrown out of the window.
R.H: You famously predicted in your December article for the Atlantic Council that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could lead to Vladimir Putin's downfall. Now, four or five months later, do you still retain this opinion? Can we talk about the collapse of the regime or the state in the near future?
T.K: No, I was convinced that Putin was going to be president for life in the system that he had created long ago. In Putin’s Russia, you cannot simply leave office and retire and go grow potatoes in your dacha. You have to stay in power forever because otherwise there is no honor amongst thieves. That position of being president for life was created by the changes to the Constitution in 2020. Since the invasion, I am no longer convinced Putin is the president for life. I think his regime is shakier now. We have to remember that in the former communist world, there is no tradition of military coups. This is not like Latin America, for example, or even Greece or Spain. The military has never been an independent institution here. There is no such tradition. But certainly, Putin's paranoia has gone up when he sits at these long tables. I don't think this is just COVID. It is other kinds of fear as well. He certainly is distrustful, more distrustful of people around him. That's why he is arresting generals in FSB. He's never going to hear the truth because his advisors are not going to tell it out of fear. They're always going to tell the dictator what he wants to hear.
So he is kind of isolated from the reality of what is taking place. And he is also very angry and embittered because the legacy that he wanted to build by gathering the Russian lands is now failing in Ukraine. You cannot have the recreation of Russia without Ukraine, without Kyiv. So, I think all of those factors make it an unstable system. The cracks in the regime will begin to slowly emerge, particularly with the increase in casualties. Firstly, if Putin decides there is a need to go from a special military operation to the declaration of war, he will need full mobilization. I don't think that will be popular. And secondly, the impact of sanctions, unemployment, and financial crisis will be challenging for the regime's survival. Europeans are on the verge of canceling the import of Russian oil, not gas yet, but oil that will hurt the Russian budget. All these are danger signs for a regime that doesn't understand them because Russia’s intelligence system seems to be not that highly qualified against the expectations of many.
They are constrained by their corruption. They are constrained by stereotypes and myths about Ukraine. They do not understand the outside world. They do not understand how things operate, and they're all in it for themselves. So, if I am an FSB officer and I am loyal to Putin, then everything is good because, I get my, you know, percentage of rubles every month. If that suddenly stops, I am no longer loyal. So I think it is dangerous. I think it's a regime problem. I don't think the Russian state will collapse in that sense. I mean, it can become chaotic. It can become a return to the 1990s, a typical post-Soviet kind of semi-failed state. Sure. But it is not going to collapse. The only type of person who could replace Putin is another nationalist. It's not going to be a democrat. I don't believe in a democratic future for Russia at the moment. Democrats in Russia were always weak since the 1990s, and even so-called democratic opposition leaders like Navalny are nationalists. But I would prefer Navalny to Putin. You know, you can be a Russian nationalist but that does not mean you support the invasion of Ukraine. So, I think the kind of person likely to come to power after Putin is going to be some kind of more pragmatic nationalist. And that person will have the ability to say, okay, we screwed up in Ukraine.
We need to get out of this mess. Because the only way we can end Western sanctions is if we pull out, we stop the wall. Putin cannot do that. Putin cannot say that because if he says that, it's the end of his hold on power. So only a post-Putin leader can say that Russia screwed up. The problem for the Russian regime then, is that Ukraine leaders will say, we have had enough of this. Zelensky has already said Ukraine will now take back the whole of Donbas. Ukrainian view has now changed that if we allow these separatist entities to remain, they will always be a security threat. They will not be a security threat today. But in another year’s time, they will again invade. So, we have to finish this off. And so, yes, I think one could create a number of different scenarios for Russia, but I do not think Putin has a bright future.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.