An interview with the US-based Russian historian Yuri Felshtinsky for a Kyiv-based Russian-language magazine, Biznes, which the editors refused to publish. (It also appeared in the Ukrainian News, translated into Estonian by Paavo Järg) 
Vladimir Putin recently visited the Crimea, which has been annexed by Russia. How should we understand the visit and Putin’s rhetoric that the Russian army is equipped with state of the art weapons, while these are strategic offensive weapons?

Putin is getting ready for a big war. After occupying the Crimea in March 2014 the world was divided into optimists and pessimists. The former thought that Putin would not go beyond the Crimea. The latter thought that the Crimea was only the beginning, the first step on a long way that Putin has planned for Russia. Unfortunately, the Crimean peninsula was surrendered without a battle. Russia, Ukraine and the world were happy that there were no victims. The only thing we heard from European and US leaders at the time was: let Putin say that the Crimea would be all, and we will continue to live in friendship as before. Instead, Putin declared to the whole world that it was time to correct the historical mistakes of 1991 that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. This melody – the correction of historical mistakes – is now played to us in different versions; this is the song we wake up and go to sleep to. Every morning we check the Internet to find out if the Russian army has invaded the Crimea yet. This is the reality that Putin created in March 2014.

The occupation of the Crimea in a victorious blitzkrieg caused euphoria in Russia and made Putin giddy with success. Everything that happened later in Donbass, Luhansk and even Odessa came from Putin’s strategic plan to correct the historical mistakes of 1991, on the one hand, and the surrender of the Ukrainian Crimea without resistance, on the other. Bloodshed was indeed avoided in the Crimea. However, Ukraine is now burdened by a war with thousands of victims in the eastern part of the country, and this war threatens to grow from a Russian–Ukrainian war into a world war.

Is this inevitable?

A world war? No, it’s not inevitable. This is a pre-war time – not for Russia or Ukraine, because they are already at war, but for the rest of the world. A war can always be avoided. Many great wars have been avoided in history and this is why we know nothing of them. The steps that Russia is taking now, however, are not supporting the avoidance of a big war. The question is not only about the Crimea or Donbasss and Luhansk, but all Europe. Russia is organizing military exercises in all its border zones from the Kuril Islands to the Kaliningrad Oblast, from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. Bilateral technical military agreements are being annulled one-sidedly and nobody even pays attention to it. For example on 5 May 2014, in the turmoil of the clashes in eastern Ukraine, the Russian government unilaterally violated its 2001 agreement with Lithuania that provided for additional measures for ensuring mutual trust. According to the agreement, Russia was obliged to share with Lithuania information on its military capacity in the Kaliningrad Oblast and to conduct related military inspections together with Lithuania. Lithuania has met all the conditions of the agreement and has not given reason to end the agreement. A statement by the Lithuanian defence ministry says: ‘This step by Russia shows its unwillingness to secure trust between countries and can be regarded as another sign of breaking mutual trust and the security system in Europe.’ Note that we are speaking about Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost corner. Combine this with Putin’s latest speech on the creation of a powerful military lodgement area in the Crimea, and you will understand that two lodgement areas are being created to secure the future attack of the Russian Army, one in the Crimea in the south and the other in the Kaliningrad Oblast in the west. Add the concentration of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border, joint military exercises with Belarus, the call-up of reservists to summer exercises, amendment on the law on calling up reservists to exercises and the frequency of exercises, the appointment of Rogozin as the coordinator of the military industry and the constant increase of the defence budget, and the shameless rhetoric of the Kremlin and Putin’s confrère Zhirinovsky, and you will see that all this refers to Russia’s preparation for a world war. Russia’s preparation for war and isolation is also evident in its ‘countermeasures’ to European and US sanctions.

Russia knows that after beginning a full-scale war, it will be in absolute isolation, and is now making active public preparations for isolation and for breaking connections with the civilized world. Credit-based gas transport is being stopped, import of foreign food products is being banned, so that Russia can switch over and begin to be self-sufficient and avoid a sudden goods deficit. The Kremlin’s close structures, such as Lukoil, will begin to sell their foreign stocks. I am not speaking about the ‘individuals’ close to the Kremlin: they have been preparing for war for a long time. For example, Timchenko sold his stocks a day before the first sanctions were imposed. The backdrop to all this was the new border violations by Russian strategic bombers on the air borders of NATO countries. This had not happened since Brezhnev’s time. These are preparations for a war not only with Ukraine, but the whole world. Ukraine was just the first front of the war.

Isn’t it unreasonable to begin a big war?

Of course it’s unreasonable. None of the leaders or commanders who have begun a big war have thought that it was going to be a big war, least of all a world war. No war would have been started if the result had been known from the beginning. Take WW1: it was a misunderstanding. Europe sawed through the branch it was comfortably sitting on. Empires such as Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary were wiped off the political map of Europe, while the human losses of the winners, France and Great Britain, were larger than in WW2. They never recovered from their ‘victory’. And all this happened because of the killing of an heir to a throne by a Serbian terrorist. It was revenge for one heir, the swiping off of all the monarchs of continental Europe. Was it reasonable? Absolutely not.

A hundred years passed. Until March 2014 we lived again comfortably and in peace in Europe. Market economy worked, borders were increasingly opening. Owing to high oil and gas prices on the world market, owing to the listing of Russian companies and trade in their stocks, owing to the Russian big and medium capital becoming part of the world economy thanks to unlimited credit possibilities, Russia had risen from a poor Soviet country to a successful and rich country by 2014, and Russians had become wealthy citizens. Just live and enjoy. The people who had grabbed the power in Russia (all former KGB staff) had entirely different tasks than securing the well-being of the Russian nation. Putin is now setting off on the path that Hitler and Stalin walked in 1938–1945, but like Austria-Hungary in 1914 and Germany in 1938–1939, Putin and his lieutenants do not understand that they have begun a big war. At Putin’s order, Zhirinovsky has now begun to acknowledge a third world war, but only to scare us with its prospects, not actually recognising the breaking out of the ‘third’. He hopes that the world will capitulate.

What should be done to avoid the war?

Let’s begin with what the Ukrainian side should have done from March to June 2014 and what they didn’t do. From day one they should have said that Russia started a war against Ukraine. Only now, under the pressure of irrefutable facts and events, some of the government members occasionally admit that the current events may refer to a war against Ukraine. But the war has been going on for five months. And the government has not said so to its people. The people have to understand that themselves. We will not even discuss the military side of the issue – there should have been a battle for the Crimea. Naturally there should have been a battle for the Crimea, because eastern Ukraine is now paying more than tenfold for the avoiding victims in the Crimea.

There is no army and you cannot create one quickly. There is no money and it cannot be found quickly, that’s also clear. Therefore, it’s also impossible to buy weapons. But the Russian propaganda TV channels that are broadcast throughout Ukraine could have been closed. No money or army is needed for that. All it would have taken was some understanding of the events and (excuse me!) some brains. Why is that being done only now, five months later, when eastern Ukraine is already at war? Why, in a situation of general lack of money, was 786 million dollars paid out to Russia for previously supplied gas, while Yatsenyuk repeated many times that Russia robbed a large amount of Ukrainian gas by occupying the Crimea? Who ordered that sum to be paid to Russia? How should that be understood – stupidity or treason? Why hasn’t that crime been investigated? If you are going to tell me that Russia did not give a bribe for those 786 million dollars, I will not believe you. I remember what a campaign was launched in the Russian mass media to receive the money. Putin-Medvedev-Miller never left the TV screens demanding their 786 million – this sum was so important to them in order to continue the war in Ukraine. And instead of using the money to strengthen its defences, Ukraine gave it to Russia to continue the war against Ukraine.

So, a lot could have been done between March and July, not by spending money but by saving it. Ukraine’s military, diplomatic and political possibilities are unfortunately limited, but as long as Ukraine has not publicly admitted that a war has been started against it, NATO will not come to help. Why should NATO run to help if Ukrainians are fighting separatists, not the Russian army? How is it NATO’s business, or that of the US or Europe? Manage yourself, if these are your own resistance fighters.

You know very well that these are not ‘resistance fighters’ or ‘separatists’, and that they are not local. That’s what you have to say, to make it clear in and outside Ukraine.
There is no consistency in the activities of the Ukrainian government. If Russia is the aggressor, why are they discussing ‘humanitarian aid’? Should it be allowed to cross the border or not? Should it be accepted or not? Should it be inspected by customs or not? Where you have seen it before that a country against which aggression has been started has received humanitarian aid from the aggressor? The answer is clear: not to accept, not to allow to cross the border, not to inspect, but to consider it as an enemy attack and destroy it. What questions or doubts can you still have? Did the Polish ever receive humanitarian aid from Hitler? Even NATO announced that it regards the 280 ‘humanitarian aid’ trucks as an invasion of Ukraine. But Ukrainians are discussing what the trucks could contain: food for children, or something else, and why are the trucks half empty? What difference does it make what is in them or why are they half empty? There is free cheese only in a mousetrap. A convoy of 280 Kamaz trucks is your mousetrap with the free cheese. If they had said that publicly and announced that the column would be destroyed upon entry in the Ukrainian territory, the discussion on ‘humanitarian aid’ would have ended. Russia wants to help the people of eastern Ukraine? Let it take its army out of Ukraine and stop the shooting, and no humanitarian aid would be needed.

Moscow is now ready to do whatever it takes to invade Ukraine. It is very important that Ukrainians understand two things. First, not to fight is not an option. Second, Ukraine will not survive alone. Ukraine has to work to get as much support as possible from Europe and America. This is the government’s most important political task. Unfortunately, Europe and America think that it’s not their concern until there is no bloodshed. Western structures do not operate as ‘first aid’. You cannot call for that aid by phone. But the government’s main task is to ask for military assistance. This is why Ukraine has to announce that it would fight any aggression by Russia. Help will only come to those who help themselves. I understand that it’s a vicious circle: as long as Ukraine does not fight back, it will not be helped. But it cannot fight without help.

Ukraine is now fighting, but declares that there is no war. I advise to fight and let the world know that a war has been started against Ukraine. Help will then come, because in whatever terms – military, political, diplomatic, strategic, geopolitical, and in terms of common sense – it is better for NATO to go against the Russian army in a Ukraine that is at war, rather than in a surrendered Ukraine.

What is the significance of the Donbasss war in this large conflict?

It’s only a fraction of the mosaic. It’s of course very important for Ukraine. While the Crimea was occupied by blitzkrieg, Donbasss was different. The people living in the eastern part of Ukraine have now understood that Russia’s attempt to subjugate Ukraine will bring destruction, war and death to their homes, not wealth and prosperity. While after the occupation of the Crimea there was an illusion that Ukraine can be joined with Russia peacefully, without victims, according to the Crimean scenario, then now, five months later, everyone can see that this will not happen. I am convinced that the people of eastern Ukraine do not feel as kindly toward Russia as they did in March 2014 when meetings to support the referendum were organised under red Soviet flags near statues of Lenin. The invasion of the ‘polite little green men’ into Ukraine resulted in total destruction, the perishing of peaceful citizens and soldiers, the issue of thousands of refugees. And that’s only the beginning. The Crimea will face the same problems, only a little later. The Novorossiya project will naturally not do any good for Ukrainians, but Putin is putting on more pressure. The Crimean scenario could be called Version 1; the current scenario is Version 2, but there are also Versions 3, 4, 5, etc. The Russian army headquarters of course have other names for these versions. Even Putin has slowly begun to cast light on these plans. We learned from his latest speech in the Crimea that there is a civil war in Ukraine, that Ukraine is drowning in blood, and that Russia cannot refuse to interfere with these events. But we heard nothing that would have referred to Putin’s wish to end the aggression and interference in Ukrainian affairs. We heard nothing about Ukraine’s right to decide its own fate. I am stressing that we heard the exact opposite: Russia must interfere with Ukrainian affairs because there is bloodshed and a civil war in Ukraine and Russia is obliged to interfere. Do you remember how Molotov, before the invasion of Poland in 1939, announced of the collapse of the ‘Versaille bastard’ and the related need to defend the Ukrainian and Belarusian brothers? In his Crimean speech, Putin repeats Molotov’s speech almost word for word. No wonder that the live broadcast of the speech was cancelled at the last moment. He uttered such things together with Zhirinovsky...

Ukraine has to understand that the war with Russia has already begun. If the world interferes on time and a full-scale war is avoided, it’s good. While hoping for the best, however, we should consider the worst scenario, because the worst is otherwise 100% sure to happen. Ukraine is not at war with separatists. It means that the wrong objectives have been set for the country, the nation and the army. Russia is at war with Ukraine. Ukraine is therefore forced to fight Russia.

Who could be Moscow’s ally in this war?

Nobody. This is currently the weakest link in Putin’s policy. While Hitler had Italy and Japan on his side, and many European countries sympathised with the Führer and the fascist movement, Putin does not have such support. The Stalinist Soviet Union won WW2 as it fought together with England and the US against Germany and Italy. But this is not the same as fighting alone, with only Russian forces, against the US, England, Germany, Italy, and the rest of Europe. Furthermore, Putin’s Russia is not Stalin’s Soviet Union. It’s a much weaker country.

The Kremlin of course thinks of China as its life buoy. We could speak about the map of China in length or in brief. I will try to speak in brief. When you speak about the Russian–Ukrainian war, or a third world war, forget about China. Only our European ignorance makes this colossus on its clay legs seem like a monolithic great power. China as we know it was established in 1928. China is an ancient civilization, but a very young country with all of its serious problems. Even though there is a communist party dictatorship in China and the government-controlled mass media does not reveal all the problems of the country, there are no fewer problems. We just don’t know anything about them. China is the last country who would be interested in destroying the current order, in general instability and in a war in Europe, least of all on the whole world, because the Chinese economy is mainly interested in stability and the constant capital investments by Western banks in its economy. Any large-scale war would destroy that stability. This is why China will not enter an international conflict on Russia’s side.

By the way, I am far from agreeing with the widely promoted idea that China would try to strengthen its positions in Russia or even invade Russia’s territory, taking advantage of Russia’s involvement in a war in Europe. China waited patiently for a hundred years for the end of Hong Kong’s lease to the UK. China has still not used military power to annex Taiwan, although Taiwan is an ‘ancient Chinese territory’. This ancient civilization thinks in terms of centuries, not in terms of the ‘president’s set dates’. In the eyes of the Chinese, Putin’s leap into the Crimea is an unwise affair of one of Europe’s tribal leaders who is not able to think about his country wisely, for generations ahead. If we speak about trade between Russia and China, then Russia will of course sell its oil and gas to Asia instead of Europe. Commodity prices will change completely then. A zero price will guarantee endless demand. For a zero price, anyone would take Russian gas and oil. There is nobody to sell these to at the high European prices. Therefore, China will not replace Europe as a commodity buyer for Russia.

You said Belarus will play an important role in the invasion of Ukraine, as it will open the way for the Russian army to Volhynia and Galicia, passing by the Upper Dnieper. We can currently see Lukashenko’s political manoeuvres between Ukrainian and Russian-minded viewpoints. What are his possibilities of breaking off from Putin?

In the eyes of Europe and the US, Lukashenko is a dictator and he is not sympathized with. This does not mean that the world would recognize the annexation of Belarus by Russia. It doesn’t. But that makes no difference. I don’t want to derogate Belarusians, but Belarus is a missing link, an empty space in terms of military power. The fate of Belarus in the Ukrainian–Russian war has been left to the Russian military headquarters to decide. If you look at the map, Belarus is strategically very important in the context of attacking Ukraine. A full-scale war is impossible without violating the sovereignty of Belarus. The Russian army will naturally enter Ukraine, and will do so also via Belarus. Whether this will happen with the approval of Lukashenko or not is irrelevant.

Lukashenko makes contradictory statements. He can be understood. He has no hope for help from anywhere and he knows Putin better than we do. He cannot believe Putin, Putin deceives. Lukashenko cannot agree with Putin on anything, except perhaps on complete capitulation. Lukashenko is therefore nervously waiting for what will happen. In the event of a full-scale attack, the Russian army will invade Ukraine along the entire Russian–Belarusian–Ukrainian border: from the Crimea, via Belarus, from the east and south-east. It’s merely a formal and technical issue whether Putin and Lukashenko previously agree on the incorporation of Belarus into Russia, on allowing the Russian forces to pass through the Belarusian territory, or even on the participation of Belarusian forces in joint military operations against Ukraine. It seems to me that Lukashenko will not defend Ukraine from the Russian aggressor.

Belarus special forces soldiers during the graduation test to become a Maroon Beret at the Belarus Interior Ministry’s Volovshchina training center. Photo: Scanpix 

How long can Russian society live in such a pre-war situation, with fierce propaganda that increases the rating of the authorities?

As long as it takes. The Russian press and TV are still working as planned, only with a little less momentum. Ukraine, Ukrainians, Europe and the US do not get a single positive word on Russian channels. Unfortunately, most of the Russian population do not use the Internet and they only get their news from the Russian mass media, but you know what the Russian mass media shows and writes about Ukraine. If Hitler and Goebbels had had the same kinds of propaganda channels at their disposal, they would have conquered the world much more easily. Putin has been tuning his propaganda machinery since 2000. Everyone in Russia was wondering why Putin had to quash the independent media. That was to make the entire system obey orders from above. When the media is ordered to raze the Chechens to the ground, they do it. When they are ordered to raze the Georgians, they do that. When they are told to raze Ukrainians, they start to do that. The system will last as long as Putin’s regime will last.

The rating of the authorities is another topic. Only a free country has to worry about ratings. Even in a genuinely free country, the government’s rating is not high. If the government’s rating is too high, believe me, it’s a dictatorship. All dictators have always had very strong support until a revolution swipes them away. I would rather say that the current opinion polls in Russia show the remaining level of freedom in Russia rather than Putin’s popularity. After the occupation of the Crimea, a survey was conducted in Russian regions as to who supports Putin. The support was lowest in Moscow, about 60%, and the highest in Chechnya, 97%. It means that the freedom of speech is 40% in Moscow and 3% in Chechnya, and ranges between 3% and 40% in the rest of Russia.

The popularity ratings supporting Putin are completely irrelevant, especially since the people of Russia do not influence the government’s policy. Elections have been a fiction in Russia for a long time. The parliament supports the government in all issues and is a formal tool of the authorities just like the Supreme Council was in the Soviet Union. Polls are carried out only according to the instructions received from above, and they are just another propaganda tool for the Kremlin, nothing more.

Russia is not one of the countries where the people organise revolutions every ten years. Citizens of the Russian Federation are not inclined to overthrow their governments. Many (often intelligent, educated and active) people think of Russia as a piece of land where you can earn money. A money-making citizen does not want to reform Russia, because there are too many risks. The main risk is that the government may take away the business and lock up the businessman for economic crime, like they did with Khodorkovsky. It’s easier to make money until it’s allowed, and to run away if something happens. This is the way of thinking, even though many deny it. Naturally, there are some people who sincerely support Putin. Most of them are fascists, nationalists, or people who survived the last war – people sick from the war. Hitler enjoyed quite a high level of support in Germany. This hardly helped the Germans after 1939.

The ghost of war hardly excites anyone and scares few in Russia now. There was the Chechnya war – it hardly concerned anyone in Russia as a whole. The Crimea was taken – no negative effects. Russians will continue to live their lives. Nothing will change their thinking until their standard of living actually worsens as a result of war. The sanctions against Russia are now weak and work slowly, but they will gradually have their effect. Putin himself will be of the greatest help to Europe, because he himself will have to impose sanctions against his own people. He will have to take initiative and get ready for international isolation. This is why he imposes countersanctions to make it look like he is punishing European and American businesses. There’s another thing referring to preparations for a big war – Russia is buying up gold, increasing its gold reserves. This is the usual activity of a country’s central bank before starting a war.

Is there current Russian–Ukrainian conflict causing a risk of splitting Europe?

Any dictator stays in power while relying on confrontation – everyone has to be agitated against each other, even in the dictator’s own team. This is done on personal, national and international levels. Putin hoped to split the US and Europe and later to fragment Europe internally. This is an important task, but I don’t think it can be accomplished. Not because Europe has joined as the European Union and has common policies, but because the split has not occurred. It could have happened only at the beginning of the conflict. There are countries that suffer less from broken relations with Russia, and others that suffer more. But it’s wrong to think that this would stop the sanctions. Germany depends on Russian gas and supplies them with machinery. Naturally, Germans are not interested in stopping trade relations. At the same time, Germany suffered the biggest losses in the two world wars, and Germany itself started these wars. Germany knows better than anyone what a dictator in a European superpower means and what it can lead to. Yes, German business circles are scared by the sanctions against Russia. All business circles are now frightened, but what has been happening since March 2014 was not driven by money. Nothing that Putin does is driven by money. It’s driven by fame as Putin understands it, by the empire as he sees it, by history and geopolitics as he perceives them. It’s another level of international problems. The time of money-making is over for everyone. Now a period of spending the collected resources begins. The peaceful market relations established over the years are already broken.

Who will benefit from the war?

We know how the previous two world wars left Europe: completely impoverished and devastated. This applies to both the winners and losers. Even the UK lost, and not only human lives. The continental empires fell after WW1. Germany and Europe were divided into the Eastern and Western Blocs after WW2. It’s difficult to speak of winners in such a war. The US came out of the war as a world power and has, since then, been inadvertently drawn into all the problems of the world. Whether this can be called victory is a complicated question. The war that Putin is inciting now is a European war. Everyone in Europe will lose from it, especially Russia itself.

17 August 2014
The web publication InfoResist published the interview on 12 September 2014