Westerners are wondering about Putin’s intentions regarding Ukraine. They take into account the slightest declarations that emanate from the Kremlin, the movements of troops, the evolution of propaganda. But the broader context of the crisis often escapes them. The destruction of the independent Ukrainian state is certainly a priority objective pursued by Putin because of his historical obsessions. But it must also serve as an instrument for realizing a goal no less important in Moscow’s eyes: the training of European elites.
During the Istanbul summit on November 19, 1999, President Yeltsin and President Clinton had this amazing exchange.
Yeltsin: “I ask you one thing. Just give Europe to Russia. The U.S. is not in Europe. Europe should be the business of the Europeans. Russia is half European and half Asian.”
Clinton: “So you want Asia too?”
Yeltsin: “Sure, sure, Bill. Eventually we will have to agree on all of this”.
Clinton: “I don’t think the Europeans would like this very much.”
Yeltsin: “Not all. […] You can take other states and provide security to them. I will take Europe and provide them security. Well, not I. Russia will. […] Bill, I ‘m serious. Give Europe to itself. Europe never felt as close to Russia as it does now. […] We have the power in Russia to protect all of Europe… Look, Russia has the power and intellect to know what to do with Europe.”
Now let us refer to Vladimir Putin’s words at the St. Petersburg summit in May 2018, when President Macron reminded him that the United States contributes to European security: “You don’t have to worry. We will help you. We will provide [European] security.” RIA Novosti noted at the time: “Europe’s allergy to gunpowder can allow us to develop a profitable business. It is not without reason that Vladimir Putin has offered Russia’s services to ensure European security. […] To paraphrase Lord Ismay, we can say that the common security space discussed by Macron and Putin at the St. Petersburg forum can be built according to the formula: ‘The United States must be kicked out of Europe, Russia’s interests in Europe must be taken into account, Europe’s independence must be supported.’“1
The roots of the crisis of the winter of 2021-22 can be found here. One can only wonder at the remarkable continuity of Russian objectives, and the stubbornness with which they are implemented brick by brick. The Kremlin’s Ukrainian strategy is inseparable from realizing of its long-term goals in Europe. The evolution of the Kremlin’s European policy follows that of its domestic policy: at first co-optation by bribery and blackmail, then an increasing role for intimidation. This can be seen in the construction, against all odds, of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which is at the same time an instrument for recruiting German politicians and businessmen, an instrument for the geopolitical downgrading of Ukraine and for the ruin of this country, and a means of ensuring Europe’s submission to the Kremlin, especially when the gas argument is reinforced by military intimidation. During his meeting with Viktor Orban, President Putin did not fail to point out that “Hungary bought Russian gas five times cheaper [$230-250] than the market price in Europe”: a clear signal that “Putin’s friends” and countries that refuse the deployment of NATO troops on their territory are generously rewarded by Moscow. “The United States and Germany will be left empty-handed with their sanctions. This will be a good lesson for them as well”. “In 2023, a freezing Europe will burn its libraries in the chimneys,” svpressa gloats. A carrot for some, the stick for others.
This correlation between the Kremlin’s Ukrainian policy and its desire to tame the European elites was explicitly revealed in October-November 2021, when Russia submitted to the French and German foreign ministers a draft joint declaration on the “internal Ukrainian conflict” noting the lack of progress in resolving the conflict and calling for a “direct dialogue” between Kiev and the separatist regions, a declaration that it proposed to publish after the meeting of the four foreign ministers. The adoption of this document by the West would have meant that they had accepted the Russian version of the conflict in Ukraine. On November 4, Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, responded in a joint letter to Sergei Lavrov that Moscow’s draft contained assessments that Germany and France did not share, notably, the description of an “internal Ukrainian conflict” and the role of “facilitator” claimed by Russia, alongside the OSCE, between the belligerents. Outraged by the Franco-German refusal, the Russian Foreign Ministry made public on November 17, 2021, the confidential notes exchanged with France and Germany. This resistance by the representatives of the two European countries, usually the most complacent towards Moscow, was considered outrageous.
One can think that this episode contributed to the Russian escalation that led to the ultimatum of 17 December, 2021, accompanied by threats of nuclear war. Putin’s reasoning, inspired by his paranoia and his practice of martial arts, was more or less as follows. The West has turned Ukraine into an “anti-Russia”. Well, let’s turn that Ukrainian lever against NATO, let’s break up NATO by pressuring Ukraine. The whole crisis that followed stemmed from this reasoning: the troops massed on the borders of Ukraine; the threat of an invasion of that country, or even a war with the West, if NATO did not give Russia “security guarantees” that amounted to Alliance suicide and the total discrediting of the United States as guarantor of European security.
Putin had been so impressed by the U.S. debacle in Afghanistan that he imagined he could drive the Americans out of Europe with a well-orchestrated bluff. An article by Dmitry Suslov dots the i’s: “Moscow is essentially proposing to change the fundamental rules of the game and the basic principles that have determined European security over the past 30 years, a situation that suited the United States and NATO perfectly, but never Moscow. First of all, it is the principle proclaimed in the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe that each state has the right to determine for itself how to ensure its security, including joining one military bloc or another.” Suslov calls for a denunciation of the now “obsolete” Charter of Paris. RIA sums up the Kremlin’s calculation even better: “Our proposals-demands are the signal for a new time. The United States must begin to withdraw willingly, because in any case it will have to give up its positions (this process is already underway), including in the post-Soviet space, which, whatever happens, will return in the medium term to the sphere of our unconditional influence. The Americans would do better to prepare themselves and carry out their withdrawal in an orderly fashion rather than suffer further damage later from a chaotic Afghan-style collapse.” The idea is to provide Washington and the Europeans with the means “to present [their] forthcoming concessions as an achievement in the name of the survival of the Ukrainian people and state, as well as the prevention of a supposedly imminent great war in Europe.” Thus the blackmail against Ukraine was designed to accelerate the American withdrawal from Europe and to force the dismantling of the entire post-Cold War liberal European order.
The failure of this plan after the first salvo does not mean that Russia has given up its objectives. Quite the contrary. Chased out the door, Russia usually comes back through a window. This European context must be taken into account when weighing the risk in Moscow’s eyes of an open war against Ukraine. As Dmitry Suslov points out, “the option of a hypothetical Russian invasion of Ukraine in response to the refusal of the United States and NATO to respect Russian ‘red lines’ seems really absurd and counterproductive: it will not reduce the security of the United States and its allies (they will not go to war with Russia because of Ukraine), but will only consolidate them even more against Russia.” Of all the options being considered today by the Kremlin, it is likely that it will choose those most likely to sow discord in the Western camp and especially to drive Europeans away from the Anglo-Saxons.
The desire to divide the West can be seen in the press conferences held after President Putin’s meeting with Viktor Orban and with Emmanuel Macron. After the recent declarations by the commander of the German navy, Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, stating that Ukraine would never take back Crimea, the Russian president, aware of a hesitation among Europeans, fanned the flames of apprehension: “Let’s imagine that Ukraine is a NATO country and launches military operations [to take back Crimea]. Should we go to war with the NATO bloc? Well, has anyone even thought about that? It seems not.” This argument was repeated ad nauseam by Vladimir Putin in his press conference after the meeting with President Macron on February 7: “Do you want France to be at war with Russia? That is what will happen! Do you understand or not that if Ukraine is in NATO and wants Crimea back by military means, European countries will automatically be drawn into a military conflict with Russia?” […] There will be no winners. And you will find yourselves dragged into this conflict against your will. You will not even have time to blink when you implement Article Five of the Treaty of Rome.” The Russian president’s crass ignorance is clearly on display: the confusion between the North Atlantic Treaty and the Treaty of Rome founding the EEC, the fact that Article 5 of the NATO Treaty does not guarantee automatic military assistance in the event of aggression against one of the member states, which pulverizes Putin’s favorite argument.
What is an “incursion” into Ukraine? What is the threshold at which the dreaded Western sanctions will be triggered? The front line in the Donbass has remained virtually unchanged for years. In the Kremlin’s view, the expansion of the separatist enclave could be tolerated by some Europeans. As a result, the issue of sanctions would become a bone of contention within the Western camp. One thinks of a scenario similar to that of the August 2008 war in South Ossetia. “Uncontrolled” (or, on the contrary, remote-controlled) elements of the separatist territories can organize a provocation, to which Ukraine can only retaliate, which will serve as an excuse for a larger-scale Russian intervention. In this sense, the soothing statements of the Russian Foreign Ministry that Russia will not start a war are very worrying.
It is clear that the transformation of the separatist territories into a Russian protectorate without official status is accelerating. The Kremlin has already ordered the deputies of the State Duma to launch a propaganda campaign to prepare public opinion. Communists in the Duma are working on an agreement to recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk republics and are loudly demand the supply of arms to these entities. But this is just window dressing: “To recognize [the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics]? No, that would be to our detriment and extremely beneficial to the Atlanticists, because not only would the Minsk agreements no longer be relevant (while they allow us to retaliate against the West by pointing to Kiev’s non-compliance with the agreements), but it could facilitate Ukraine’s actual membership in NATO.”
For Moscow is not abandoning its old project dating back to 2015: forcing the West to compel Ukraine to carry out the Minsk II agreements, negotiated by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany after heavy military setbacks for Ukraine.
The Minsk agreements stipulate the withdrawal of “all heavy weapons by both sides”, the establishment of a demilitarized strip of 50 to 140 kilometers wide, the resumption by Kiev of the financing of territories under rebel control, and a constitutional reform in Ukraine by the end of 2015, providing for “decentralization”, and granting a special status to the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. These regions will have the right to appoint prosecutors and judges, to form “people’s police units”, to have “cross-border cooperation with districts of the Russian Federation”. Through these agreements, Russia gets what it wants: the assurance of a prolonged ruin of Ukraine forced to assume the economic burden of the pro-Russian enclaves in the hands of mafia networks supervised by the Russian services; the assurance that the Ukrainian state will be weak, with, for Moscow, the prospect of controlling the government in Kiev thanks to the eastern regions that have become a blocking force after the implementation of the constitutional reform dictated by Moscow. Strategic foreign policy decisions, such as joining the European Union or NATO, will be impossible without the agreement of all members of the Ukrainian federation. Thus, Russia will always have the means to destabilize Ukraine from within. Once weakened and under Russian control, Ukraine would theoretically regain control of its borders.
In his press conference on February 7, 2022, Vladimir Putin let slip a quote that shows better than anything else how he conceives his relationship with Ukraine: a collective rape to which he wants to associate his Western partners. Referring to the Minsk agreements to which Ukraine will be forced to subscribe, he quoted two lines from a popular quatrain: “Whether you like it or not / You just have to put up with it, my beautiful one”. The allusion becomes clearer when one knows the first two lines: “My darling is lying in her coffin, / I lie down and f… her /”.
Yes, we understand that Kiev struggles with the energy of despair. The first stumbling block is that Russia refuses to recognize itself as a party to the conflict. Kiev argues that it must first put an end to hostilities, declare a general ceasefire, withdraw military equipment and free the Donbass from Russian troops. However, Russia maintains that its army is not in the Donbass and that those who are there are volunteers, who are part of the local “police units” in accordance with the provisions of the agreements. From the beginning of the conflict, Russia has opposed initiatives to deploy an armed OSCE mission or any other peacekeeping mission. From 2019, Russia began to massively distribute Russian passports to the inhabitants of the separatist regions (650,000 passports were distributed in the spring of 2021), so as to provide itself a pretext for intervention “in defense of Russian citizens.”
Today the Kremlin has decided to press this issue once again and has obtained that not only France and Germany, but even the United States, declare themselves supporters of the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
This maneuver accompanies a vast enterprise of subversion of the Ukrainian state. Energy as a weapon and the threat of a war to frighten away investors are used to bring the Ukrainian economy to its knees. The Russian press gloats in portraying the dramatic situation in that country: “The Ukrainian hryvnia has sunk to the bottom as foreigners have dumped Ukrainian government bonds. The cost of servicing the huge foreign debt has risen sharply. And all this against the backdrop of a harsh winter, the energy crisis, mass closures of large enterprises and protests by small entrepreneurs who continue to be burdened with ever-increasing taxes. In this situation, instead of getting near-obsolete weapons, Kiev would prefer money. But after drawing a paltry 1.2 million euros in aid from the European Union ‘because of the threat of invasion,’ the Ukrainian leadership has not received a penny more. […] The dismal economic situation is causing social tension to spiral in the country; this, against a background of disorganization of power and law enforcement, could well lead to pogroms similar to the Kazakh scenario. And it would not only be a question of regime change in the country, but also of the physical survival of the Ukrainian elite. Moscow understands this very well. […] No one is giving money. Worse, Kiev is obliged to comply with the Minsk agreements, which is the death knell for the current government. This destroys the informal agreement between Ukraine and the West, according to which, in exchange for Kiev’s Russophobic policy, the government is kept afloat […] the maximum that is now offered to these elites is to hang on to the underbody of the American planes that are about to take off, as was already the case in Afghanistan.”
This last remark is important: it shows that the Minsk agreements are also an attempt to eradicate the Ukrainian elites. This is once again President Putin’s revenge, which is hinted at by his words at the press conference on February 7, 2022: “We understand that this is not about Zelensky or even Poroshenko — the United States was behind the coup [of February 2014, when pro-Russian President Yanukovych fled] with the most active participation of Germany and France.” A view echoed by political scientist Igor Shishkin: “In the Minsk agreements, France and Germany are not peace mediators. They are representatives of the real masters of Ukraine after 2014, who saved their puppet regime… The Minsk agreements will cancel the coup d’état, because they will return Ukraine to its previous state. In other words, they will deprive of power those who organized the coup and still rule over ‘independent’ Ukraine, namely, the collective West, first the United States, and not far behind, France and Germany.”
Putin dreams of seeing the Westerners unseat with their own hands those who in his mind were put in power by NATO countries in Kiev. Moscow plans to revive Stalin’s policy of the 1930s, to annihilate or force into exile those Ukrainian elites who reconstituted themselves after the Stalinist extermination, as is already the case in Belarus. One can imagine a scenario in which the Ukrainian government’s recognition of the puppet regimes in Donbass, in accordance with the Minsk agreements, would provoke a coup in Kiev, which will be presented by Russia as a far-right putsch. Russia will use this as a pretext to launch a military invasion under the guise of protecting Russian speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine, with the Russian aggression camouflaged as a “humanitarian” move to prevent “genocide”.
Surprised by the firmness of the reaction of the NATO countries to the December 17 ultimatum, the Kremlin remains convinced that this reaction will be short-lived. It is eagerly watching for signs of a crumbling Western camp. Elena Karaeva, whose specialty seems to be to trash President Macron, writes in RIA: “The current diplomatic activity of the Europeans, who this time have delegated to France, invested with the EU presidency, the powers of the chief negotiator, can be explained simply: the member countries of the EU are not interested in being caught between a rock and a hard place and risking their well-being, albeit modest, for the sake of slogans put forward by non-Europeans and in the name of a Ukraine that is completely and infinitely foreign to the Europeans. […] Germany knows exactly what could happen if the Russians, as a countermeasure and only because of the threat of an attack on their country, decided to speak to the Germans in military language. Not to mention the fact that Russian gas and other energy sources will loudly say auf wiedersehen and go to Asian markets, where they are expected — and eagerly awaited. Macron’s situation is similar to Scholz’s, though more complicated: after having taken a beating in Africa, forced (also for this reason) to withdraw the military contingent there, the French president, as commander-in-chief, can only know that in case of a confrontation with the Russians, his armed forces will not last for a day. […] Selfishly afraid for his very small self and realizing (well, to the extent given by nature and circumstances) that a conversation with Russia would have to be conducted on Russia’s terms, Macron sent his emissary Pierre Vimont, a trusted person with the rank of ambassador plenipotentiary, to Moscow.”
Predictably, “the welcome given to the president of France in Moscow looks like a clear signal to the West as a whole: either complete capitulation or war,” comments Alexander Jelenin in Rosbalt. Many Europeans are under the illusion that the Kremlin would be willing to accept a neutral Ukraine on the model of Finland. This amounts to misunderstanding Putin’s regime, and to forget the obsessions of the Russian president. Putin wants to turn Ukraine into a satrapy, to chain it to the “Russian world” as he understands it, with its cult of the “great patriotic war”, its dictatorial regime, its corruption, its regimented media breathing hatred of Europe and liberal democracies. The Kremlin is well aware that a Ukraine controlling its internal politics could become the “silver bullet” capable of striking at the heart of the Putin system: after the Maidan, the conditions for development have been put in place — freedom, democratic institutions in formation, separation of powers. And it would give Ukraine a chance to build a prosperous state if Russia would stop harassing it. Putin cannot tolerate the emergence of a pole of freedom in the “Russian world”. In Ukraine it is Europe that Russia is fighting, and this relentless onslaught only reflects Putin’s hatred of European civilization, even as he seeks to establish Russia’s hegemony on the continent and co-opt European leaders to carry out the Kremlin’s agenda.
It is also Russia that Putin is targeting, a Russia that is beginning to awaken from the death-like torpor into which the pathological fantasies of its leader have plunged it for 20 years. “I have the impression that Putin is tired of Russia and that he wants to finish it off”: such is the stunning declaration of the very nationalist General Ivashov in a resounding interview condemning the bellicose posture of Putin’s Russia. We have reached a point where the accumulated domestic problems and the untenable situation in which Putin’s policy has placed Russia at the international level are converging, and in the refusal of war, the patriots of the old school and the liberals are unexpectedly coming together. Geopolitical adventures, far from stabilizing the system, risk bringing it down with a bang.
Ivan Danilov, « Pridëtsa brat’ Berlin i Parizh », RIA Novosti,30/05/2018. ↩