Stanislav Belkovsky is one of the most outspoken and controversial political experts in modern Russia. He is the author of 12 books, including Vladimir Putin’s Business (2006), where he estimated Putin’s fortune to be $40 billion at the time of publication. In 2004, he was a political advisor to the Ukrainian opposition, and he actively took part in the Orange Revolution. In the Orange Revolution’s aftermath, Belkovsky, who is fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian, founded the Institute of National Strategy of Ukraine. In 2013, he predicted that Viktor Yanukovych would flee Ukraine and that victory for the Maidan was assured. He regularly appears on various Russian media outlets, including Echo of Moscow, Slon, Moskovsky Komsomolets, and the independent TV-Dozhd channel. Our own Karina Orlova spoke with him over the weekend about Putin’s grand strategy (or lack thereof), and how it’s playing out with regards to Ukraine.
Karina Orlova for TAI: There appear to be two competing conventional wisdoms about Vladimir Putin here in Washington. The first one is a that whatever Russia’s President is doing—whether he is getting involved in Syria, or whether he is leaving Syria, or whatever he is doing in eastern Ukraine—it is part of a bigger game which Putin always wins. There is a presumption that the United States, being led by Barack Obama, is always two steps behind, somehow losing to Putin. And the second one is the opposite: It presumes that Putin, although dangerous, is not really winning, and that his moves mostly end in failure. So was the release of Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko last week a smart strategic move in a winning gambit, or yet another loss for Putin?
Stanislav Belkovsky: First of all, I would like to point out that before one considers Putin either a winner or a loser, one should realize what his goals actually are. For me, it is obvious that his only goal is to make the West kindly accept him as an equal—and to start negotiating the world’s fate with him. I call this “Operation Force the West Unto Love”. Obviously, Putin has not achieved this goal, so it would be fair to say he is not exactly winning. Nor is he outmaneuvering Obama.
Regarding Nadezhda Savchenko’s release, it was of course not a prisoner swap between the two countries—not even close. What seems to have happened was that during the Normandy Four late night phone talks [held on May 23rd – Ed.] with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin came to the realization that to not have sanctions tightened further at the very least Savchenko needed to be released.
Neither Savchenko’s fate, nor the fate of the two Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) agents, was ever Putin’s overriding concern. He needed to make a move as part of his long-term Operation of Forcing the West unto Love, and it was timed to make an impact before the G7 Summit in Japan, not later.
At minimum, Savchenko’s release is an attempt to not to worsen the sanctions situation. At best, it is an attempt to improve it, for instance with regards to getting the Russian economy’s national champions access to foreign funds. This is of ultimate importance to Russian banks and corporations.
KO: Why was she released before the G7 Summit in Japan?
SB: Putin is looking to the upcoming EU Summit at the end of June, where an extension of European sanctions on Russia will be discussed. For Russian elites, European sanctions are the most sensitive subject. But a general agenda for the June meeting was being developed at the G7 Summit, and that is why Savchenko needed to be released before the meeting at Ise-Shima National Park had started. And sure enough, on May 26th [the day Savchenko was released, as well as the first day of the summit – Ed.] Moscow was lauded for perhaps the first time for abiding by the Minsk agreements, which can be translated from diplomatic speak as “this is for Savchenko’s release”.
KO: At what stage are Russia-Ukraine relations now? What is the status of the War in eastern Ukraine today?
SB: The situation in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk has finally “gone Transnistrian”. In other words, it has become a proper frozen conflict, but with an important distinction: In terms of military and political power, Transnistria is de facto an independent state, whilst the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics fully obey Moscow’s will in several key aspects.
The Minsk agreements were nothing but fakery and bluffing from the beginning: they have always been unimplementable. Or, rather, theoretically implementable, but only if the Kremlin abandons the DPR and LPR—which under Putin’s governance is likely to never happen. Furthermore, in a state of a frozen conflict, the two main conditions of Minsk II cannot be fulfilled: local elections abiding by Ukrainian law granting a certain amount of local autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the restoration of full border control to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv throughout the conflict area (clauses 9 and 12).
KO: Does this mean that Vladimir Putin has achieved his goal in Donbas? Did he get what he wanted?
SB: Putin succeeded tactically: He has significantly complicated Ukraine’s accession to NATO. But the strategic goal—to incline the West, and the United States in particular, his way, to hold talks direct about the world’s fate, dividing it into spheres of influence—remains perpetually far from the Russian President’s grasp.
KO: So this is Putin’s final goal?
SB: Yes, this is his final goal. Vladimir Putin is a Westerner who suffers from being rejected by the West. But he refuses to understand and accept that an alliance between Russia and the West, if it is to exist, will have to be built on the basis of values, not on some balance of military forces hewing to an old-fashioned, Stalinist paradigm.
We live in a world where the Stalin’s famous question “How many divisions does the Pope have?” is irrelevant. Soft power is much more important then hard power today. Russia under Putin can never wield any soft power because the country does not offer any successful models and patterns to the world: neither political, nor technological, not social, nor humanitarian. This is why Russia is not even a regional power anymore: there is not a single post-Soviet state which would voluntarily orient itself towards Moscow.
And Vladimir Putin is sincerely surprised that his technologies of mega-corruption have not worked as expected at the end of the day. It seemed to be working quite well in the times of Gerhard Shroder and Silvio Berlusconi, but his mechanism for the bribing of Western political elites has somehow started to malfunction since then.
Putin is not only surprised, he feels spurned. He resents Europe and the U.S., to whose good graces he is constantly aspiring.
KO: So Barack Obama, in his interview with the Atlantic, flattered Putin by calling Russia a regional power?
SB: Yes, Obama sounded a little bit flattering to Putin, but in general he showed a correct grasp of the situation on the whole. Putin is dangerous, but only as a local bully with nuclear weapons—not as a global power player.
KO: Let’s turn back to Russia-Ukraine relations. After Savchenko was released, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said, “We will get Donbas and Crimea back just as we have gotten Savchenko back.” The Kremlin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, responding to Poroshenko, said “If [Poroshenko] meant to say that he is determined to get Donbas back for humanitarian reasons, we could support this. Actually, that is what we hope for in Moscow. As for Crimea, we do not comment on claims on Russian territories.”
How should we read Peskov’s words about Donbas?
SB: Dmitry Peskov did not say anything new in principle. The official Kremlin position has always been that the Donbas’ conflict territories are a part of Ukraine. They just need “special status” on a number of issues, including language, policing, etc. But de facto “special status” means real and effective dependence on Moscow.
KO: But before this latest statement, the Kremlin always brought up protecting Donbas’ citizen, while this time Peskov just basically said “let Ukrainians have it”…
SB: Well, this could also be read as “come to Donbas and take it if you can”. And the crucial subtext here is the following: You can’t because at the crucial moment we will just deploy our “soldiers on leave” and our “invisible fighters” in the necessary quantity to frustrate your attempts to win it back.
KO: Does Kyiv want Donbas back at all? Or this frozen conflict a kind of win-win situation for both sides?
SB: If there was a way to inject a truth serum into almost any Ukrainian politician (except the most radical ones), he or she would say that Ukraine does not need the Donbas, and that it is more of a burden than anything. But officially Kyiv could never recognize its independence, or at least not in the foreseeable future. Doing so would appear treasonous to the Ukrainian people, and would lead to a difficult questioning of what the ATO—anti-terrorist operation in the Donbas—with all its attendant victims, was needed for.
But because I am not a Ukrainian politician, I could answer these fateful questions. As soon as Donbas leaves Ukraine for good, the country’s European trajectory would become guaranteed, and Russia’s influence would drop to close to zero. And the ATO was necessary to prevent the spread of Donbas-like conflicts into other Russian-speaking Ukrainian regions, from Kharkiv to Odessa. It is worth remembering that in the spring of 2014, fatalistic moods were widespread among Ukrainian elites. Many people were expecting Russian militaries to break the corridor towards Kherson, and through there towards Crimea and Transnistria. The ATO was a crucial factor to preventively neutralize such a scenario.
KO: Who coordinates Russia’s policy in Ukraine from the Kremlin’s side today? Is it still Viktor Medvedchuk, the former head of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s administration?
SB: In Putin’s circle, there are two main Ukraine policy “centers”, personified in Vladislav Surkov and Viktor Medvedchuk. And these two have been fighting each other hard. Nevertheless all the final decisions are being made exclusively by Putin himself.
KO: Do these two have real ideological differences in their vision? Or it is just a cabinet fight?
SB: They do. Medvedchuk pushes Putin to a more active interference in Ukrainian affairs, including at the national Ukrainian level. Apparently, it relates to Medvedchuk’s desire to return to politics in Ukraine with a number of trump cards in his hands. It is not a coincidence that Putin invited Medvedchuk to the Kremlin on May 25th, at the meeting with the relatives of the two Russian journalists whose murder Savchenko was convicted of by the Russian courts. At that meeting, Medvedchuk was presented as all but Savchenko’s liberator. Viktor Medvedchuk is godfather to one of Putin’s daughters, and is generally a close friend to Russia’s President. From what one can see, relations between the two remain strong.
Surkov’s position is more moderate. He proposes to use the conflict in eastern Ukraine to bargain for Crimea, and to eventually get Kyiv’s loyalty to Moscow—at least when it comes to NATO issues.
Putin, as he always does in these situations, follows both lines at once. And at the same time, he fully believes that, as it is today, Ukraine will crumble anyway—at least economically. And then you’d have a completely different conversation on your hands. The world would beg Moscow to save Ukraine, and Russia would trade this for sanctions lifting and recognition of its claims on Crimea.
I would add that the mass corruption and inefficiency of post-Maidan Ukrainian authorities actually allows this fantasy of Putin’s to persist.
KO: That’s a marvelous plan, but how could Moscow possibly save Ukraine, if it needs to be saved itself? Is Putin that ignorant on the perilous state of the Russian economy?
SB: Putin does not suffer from alarmism. He has enough money on hand in his various stashes. And by stashes, I mean cash in the bank accounts of the largest Russian oil and gas companies. Putin does not see a disaster. He is prone to inductive reasoning, which implies that if he has overcome difficulties in the past, he will do so again in the future as well. Putin is assured that he still has access to massive untapped resources, including the most significant one of all: the Russian people’s endless patience.
KO: Savchenko gave a press conference last week where she said “Ukraine, if you need me to be president, I will be president.” What are her real chances?
SB: For a large part of the Ukrainian elites, Savchenko is a problem. She is a problem especially for Petro Poroshenko, because she is a potential source of political destabilization in the country. She is a powerful anti-elite player.
KO: What are her relations with the Batkivshina (Fatherland) party leader Yulia Timoshenko? [Savchenko is a current member of the Ukrainian parliament (Rada) as a Batkivshina party member – ed.]
SB: Savchenko’s and Timoshenko’s interests are not identical, but their positions might align on one point: the hastening of early parliamentary elections. As soon as she arrived at the airport from Russia, Savchenko immediately talked about how the next Rada will have “its own heroes”. And today, polls show that early elections would see Batkivshina and the Opposition Bloc (the successor to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions) win big. Petro Poroshenko’s bloc would have come third, while his coalition partner, the People’s Front, would not have cleared the minimum to be represented in parliament at all. Early elections would therefore lead to Poroshenko losing control over the Rada, which in the current parliamentary-presidential system in Ukraine means losing significant power.
If she wants to, Savchenko can play a significant role in hastening these early elections.
KO: Is Savchenko a danger, politically, for Yulia Timoshenko? And is Timoshenko a danger for Poroshenko?
SB: Yulia Timoshenko is generally a dangerous person, both in a good and a bad way. She is a strong, charismatic leader obsessed with only one thing: power. She has no ideological priorities or vectors. In 2008-2009, she reached a confidential agreement with Putin while publicly remaining the leader of pro-Western and anti-Kremlin voters. So she is a always a danger both for her friend and enemies.
Savchenko is dangerous for Timoshenko only if she decides to break with Batkivshina and Timoshenko herself in a public way.
KO: In her press-conference Savchenko called Vladimir Putin a “huilo” and a nit. Does it mean that by releasing her, Putin has got an implacable enemy for life?
SB: Putin does not have any personal feelings for Savchenko. For him, she is not a human being—only a valuable chit for bargaining. And the fact she has always loathed him is not surprising at all.
KO: Coming back to Putin again for a moment: Is Russia’s President a decisive factor or just an opportunist when it comes to European politics, and more specifically the rise of the far-right? There are two differing conventional wisdoms on this point, too. One suggests he is bringing his own ideology into Europe and the world; the other implies he has no ideology, and is only motivated by perpetual self-enrichment and remaining in power.
SB: If we are talking about ideology in its classical, enlightenment sense, then no, Putin does not have any ideology. He is neither of the Right nor of the Left. He supports not only rightwing parties in the West, but also any politicians whom he sees to be at least partly “anti-system”, such as Greece’s Alexis Tsipras. Putin’s goal is to destabilize political systems in the Anglo-Saxon world. In practice, this means he assists leaders who do not feel bound by political correctness, and who can afford to deal with “bad guys”.
Putin’s vision of global affairs can be described as follows: “I am a great leader, I have a huge country with nuclear weapons, and enormous mineral resources behind me, so the world should treat me suitably. Let me govern the way I want and don’t touch my riches in the West, and I will be a good partner. I’ll help you fight ISIS and deal with many other problems.”
And Putin is prone to see all the developments in Europe in terms of his own visions. The referendum in the Netherlands on Ukraine? Well, it shows everyone is fed up by Ukraine, or so Putin thinks. He imagines his personal triumph is near.
KO: So he is not the decider, but an opportunist?
SB: An opportunist who considers himself the decider, I would say.