For Ukrainians, this is a matter of survival. Andriy Zagorodnyuk and Sergey Radchenko on the Russian invasion, one year on
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Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Chairman of the Center for Defense Strategies
Sergey Radchenko, Cold War historian
Andriy Zagorodnyuk was Ukraine’s minister of defence from 2019 to 2020. He is Chairman of the Centre for Defence Strategies and is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. To mark the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, he spoke with Russian Cold War historian Sergey Radchenko. The pair disagreed on Russia’s objectives, the possibility of a negotiated outcome, what a Ukrainian victory might look like, and the fate of Crimea.
Sergey Radchenko: Thank you for joining me today, Andriy. I’d like to start by asking: where are we in this war a year on?
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Russia is still attempting to pursue its original goal of destroying Ukraine. We haven’t yet seen any change in their policy or strategy. We are pushing Russia back and still intend to free our country from the invaders.
SR: Have the Russians not adjusted their strategy to the evolving circumstances? Destruction may have been their original plan but given the setbacks they have experienced, wouldn’t you say they may have a different objective now?
AZ: Their strategic goal hasn’t changed, but the planning element has. At first, they wanted a blitzkrieg-type operation. That didn’t work. Then last springtime they pushed to more standard manoeuvre warfare – that didn’t work either. In the summertime they tried switching to a war of attrition. But then Ukraine began its counteroffensive, and we got back certain areas, such as Kharkiv and Kherson. Right now, we believe they are trying to launch another offensive operation: they are gathering substantial forces for that. They will try to get to the borders of Donetsk region.
Putin isn’t planning another frozen conflict. He wouldn’t be satisfied with unknown interim results
SR: Let’s say they achieve this: would Russia be satisfied saying the original goal has been achieved? During the early Soviet period there was this idea of spreading world revolution: the Bolsheviks will push forward, everybody will follow them and eventually you will have the world turning red. But in the event the Bolsheviks encountered resistance and they adjusted their goal. Fundamentally, they realised their original aims weren’t achievable, so they decided to just keep what they had and be happy with it. Could the same logic apply to Russia today?
AZ: There are no exact historical analogies. We can use history, but each situation is different. Russia today will try to get as much land as possible. The occupation of the whole Donbas is a far-fetched goal as there is a substantial force from Ukraine there; we are also planning a counter-offensive and Russian forces aren’t strong enough to combat that.
But let’s assume a hypothetical scenario where they reach the borders of Donbas. They will call it the ‘liberation of Donbas’ and say that the original goal of the so-called ‘special military operation’ has been achieved. But if they are still strong and they still have some reserves and additional forces, then they will keep going.
Hypothetically, they can go anywhere. They can go to the east, they can go north to Kharkiv, they can go south to Zaporizhzhya. Their limit is essentially established wherever they are stopped by Ukrainian forces. Then they will take a pause to gather additional forces and try to continue.
Putin isn’t planning another frozen conflict. He wouldn’t be satisfied with unknown interim results. He would organise for the invasion to continue. The one thing which he fears from all our analysis, more than anything, is if his local elites consider him a failure. If he is seen as a failure, his removal is probably just a matter of time.
SR: Say he’s deposed in a coup; do you think that the Russian elite would blame it all on Putin and recognise that it was all a terrible mistake and look to find a negotiated solution?
AZ: There’s a very high chance the elites would, yes. Every dictator is afraid of only three things. He is afraid of invasion; he is afraid of revolution; and he is afraid of a coup. Nobody is planning an invasion of Russia in the foreseeable future, and nor do the conditions exist where there could be internal revolution within Russia. So, Putin would only be afraid of a coup.
In this hypothetical situation there is a high probability that Russian elites would see they are not going to be successful with the invasion of Ukraine. They have already had enormous negative consequences in terms of sanctions, and then there are the upcoming damages in terms of the criminal proceedings and reparations. So, yes, there is a chance that they would channel all negativity through him personally and they would try to set some kind of negotiated outcome.
SR: In December Henry Kissinger wrote an article in The Spectator in which he stressed the importance of eventual peace talks. He was criticised widely by people who said this would be yielding to Russian aggression.
AZ: We don’t see a real readiness of the Russian government to talk. They aggressively and arrogantly refuse to see themselves as the invader. They are still talking about all sorts of narratives that they used to justify the invasion. There is also an extremely high chance that Putin would use any ceasefire simply to prepare for a new offensive.
They are planning up for a longer game, ramping up their military industrial complex. They are conducting an ongoing mobilisation: they are even planning building a new factory with Iranians for the suicide drones. It does seem that they are going for the invasion to continue. Let’s be realistic.
In this conflict, people who are trying to talk about a military victory for Ukraine are called naïve and the people who are calling for negotiations are called realists. But real realists would see that Russia is only planning for war.
SR: It seems that both sides are really counting on resolving this on the battlefield to be able to dictate the outcome from a position of strength.
AZ: I’m sorry, I want to clarify the situation. Ukraine is not enjoying this at all. It’s not like Ukraine has any desire to continue the war any longer than it must. If you ask every single Ukrainian whether we want peace, close to 100 per cent will say yes. For Ukrainians this is a matter of physical survival, more than anything else. Nobody here is thinking: ‘We need to do this or that because when we sit at the negotiating table, we will be in a better position.’ Ukrainians are not thinking in a complex or devious way. What they think is very simple: if we don’t do this, Putin will go as far as possible until he gets to Kyiv and destroys the country. Then we’ll see the living hell that happens in the areas occupied by Russia – the torture chambers and other widespread atrocities. That’s the alternative to fighting, which is why for us it is just a matter of physical survival.
SR: We talk a lot about a Ukrainian victory and a Russian defeat, but usually those terms are used without any definition attached. What does victory mean? This is particularly relevant in relation to the question of Crimea and Donbas. We know retaking it is a key aim for the Ukrainian government. However, a lot of people in the West think that going into Crimea would risk escalation, and lead to Russian aggression.
AZ: First, Crimea is the platform for any future invasion. Crimea was turned into a military base right on mainland Ukraine’s doorstep. By controlling Crimea, Russia controls the Black and Azov seas and through that it controls access to the whole of southern Ukraine. Essentially, Russia’s imperial ambitions for Ukraine will stay while it controls Crimea, as it’s an excellent platform for invading. Ukraine will never feel secure or be able to rebuild an economy unless Crimea is returned.
Secondly, Crimea is a symbol of the Russian imperial policy. If it keeps Crimea, then it is clearly the case that it is continuing with its policy of expanding and trying to occupy Ukraine. For as long as Crimea is in Russian hands, it is a military threat, and we need to deal with this threat.
At the end of this war nuclear weapons will either be considered useless or extremely useful
Even if the government changes, Putin is gone, his elites have changed and they have decided that they want to be a member of the civilised global order, they can’t then say: ‘We are not an empire anymore, but we will still keep Crimea.’ It’s like somebody is robbing your home, he is convicted, and he needs to return everything he’s stolen. But then that person demands to keep the TV set they stole because they like it so much. It doesn’t make sense.
The global community can’t say we cannot allow countries to invade other countries but when it comes to Crimea, Russia can keep it. Crimea cannot be an exception. It is a black and white situation: we either defend the world order or we don’t.
SR: Let’s not forget: America has fought 20 years of wars in the Middle East. So much of the world is not necessarily very supportive of the ideas of ‘global order’ you mention.
Let me move on to the escalation issue. We simply have no way of knowing what’s going on in Putin’s head. But I can well imagine a scenario where Putin is deeply concerned that losing Crimea could lead to him being domestically overthrown – he would have been made to look like a loser who can’t defend his territory. Looking at this kind of situation, would he not be tempted then to use nuclear weapons? When I think about this, I try to put myself in Putin’s shoes.
AZ: Sergey, I certainly don’t advise you to try to imagine yourself as Putin, if I may. The problem when you do that is you are projecting your personality onto Putin, which is impossible. What we do instead in this situation is to look at his previous actions and see his chain of thought and try to see his logic. So, we know he will go anywhere where he is allowed to go, essentially, including nuclear weapons. I don’t think he has any moral boundaries.
Everyone knows about the consequences of the nuclear escalation, and he was told about that by the US administration. If a nuclear war starts, there will be no winners. But Russia has substantially backed off from its nuclear rhetoric so far, because of credible threats from the US.
The US learned at the beginning of the war that so-called ‘strategic ambiguity’ – basically saying things will be very bad without saying exactly what – clearly doesn’t work with Putin. When it stops being ambiguous and turns into something real, Putin listens.
In January last year, Putin was promised some very severe consequences if he invaded Ukraine. He did the first step of moving his troops into Luhansk and Donetsk. The US had only sanctioned a few Russian banks and oligarchs. It was a very mild step which didn’t change anything for Putin. He considered that as almost a welcome sign.
We communicated those lessons a lot with the US. There is reason to believe that the so-called ‘catastrophic consequences’, which were publicly announced, were non-publicly explained in much more detail with a serious degree of probability to Putin.
It is important to realise that at the end of this war nuclear weapons will either be considered useless or extremely useful. If the global community sees Russia losing the war without using nuclear weapons that means that nuclear weapons are useless – nobody will want to have them essentially except for the countries which already have them. Or we have an alternative scenario whereby the countries will realise that Russia either has won or substantially gained something, just because of its nuclear status (while unable to reach its goals conventionally). That could mean actual nuclear detonations, or a nuclear deterrent. Then the world will see massive proliferation. Which scenario happens depends on whether global leaders give in to Putin’s nuclear threats or not.
SR: It’s a psychological game. It is a bit like Russian roulette but I’m not sure how many bullets we have in the barrel.
SR: We know that President Zelensky has outlined that membership of Nato might be something that he really wants to do. It seems that the West, especially the US, is kind of neither here nor there on this question. Do you think it is a realistic prospect?
AZ: I don’t think that we can realistically expect to see Ukraine in Nato during the period of active war. I am an extremely pro-Nato person myself but let’s be realistic: I don’t see that happening before it is absolutely evident that Ukraine has won, and the war has stopped.
SR: We could have a commitment to it.
AZ: Yes, of course we can and I would really like this to happen. But we need to see and work on it.
SR: It’s in Russia’s interests to have Ukraine in Nato for all kinds of reasons. Ukraine would be empowered, potentially victorious in this war, strengthened with western aid, western military aid, it would be in Russia’s interests to have that anchored to Nato.
Historically, this is the argument that President George H.W. Bush made to Gorbachev about Germany, saying Germany is out there floating on its own, and it’s not in your interests, it is better to have it anchored to Nato. You could say that for the more enlightened future Russian leadership – if it comes – having Ukraine in Nato is probably a better idea than having it drifting on its own.
AZ: If I may ask, do you believe that in our lifetime we will see a democratic Russia? Do you believe this?
SR: Before the Soviet Union collapsed, very few people predicted that it would collapse so quickly. Look at how fast things changed: then there was a sense that we were in a new world but here we are again, 30 years later, living very much in the old world, but is it for ever or is there scope for change?
The optimistic part of me says: ‘Look, we need to keep the door to Russia open somehow.’ I understand Ukrainian scepticism, living next to this irredentist neighbour. But at the same time, another part of me says: ‘Look, if we are going to construct lasting peace in Europe, Russia has to be part of that.’ They will have to recognise that they will need to move away from the policies that they have pursued, though.
AZ: Of course, Putin is not forever. But support for the war remains high within Russia. The question is how long it will take for Russia to grow its civil society and I cannot answer that.
SR: Andriy, thank you so much for this conversation.
AZ: Thank you very much for your time.
Source: The Spectator