Interview by Marie Mendras
Vladimir Milov is a leading Russian opposition politician, energy expert and adviser to Aleksey Navalny. He was deputy minister of Energy of Russia in 2002. He is the co-author, with Boris Nemtsov et al., of Putin. Corruption (2011), and recently published Why Sino-Russian Economic Cooperation Is Not Working, Martens Centre for European Studies. He now lives in Vilnius with his family. His analysis is available on his YouTube channel.
Vladimir Milov // Facebook
Let’s start our conversation with the Kremlin’s new threats, and fierce shelling of Ukrainian cities. Do you expect an escalation in war, and possible tactical nuclear strikes, or rather a pause in Russian war waging, which might lead to more Ukrainian advances?
I don’t see any opportunity for Putin to escalate the war on the battlefield. His most potent and combat-able forces have been decimated during the first months of the war. International military experts have generally failed to produce the assessment of how many well-trained and combat-capable forces Putin had at the beginning of the war, but these forces have suffered the heaviest losses since February. Since April, with the Ukrainian offensive in Donbas, the remaining army isn’t capable of gaining ground, and starts to leave everything behind and run when they see Ukrainians advancing. It will be even more so with the newly mobilized recruits, as nearly all of them will not be capable of waging real combat. Therefore, the Ukrainian offensive is the only actual scenario of the war for months ahead. It will be more difficult to advance into territory occupied since 2014 (Crimea and Donbas) though, because Russia has been preparing defense positions there for some time.
Nuclear strikes? It is clear that they will not bring any military advantage. Using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine will not generate any military gains — because they would have to be supported by conventional military advances, and there’s no capacity for that. At the same time, tactical nuclear strikes will provoke a major and a very tough international response, including from such countries as India and even possibly China which previously refrained from criticizing Russia’s invasion. Also, if we remember the Chernobyl catastrophe, radioactive contamination in Ukraine may also spread to adjacent regions of Russia — and these are the biggest Russian agricultural producing regions (Krasnodar, Rostov, Belgorod, Bryansk), which will have devastating impact on the Russian domestic food supply.
The use of strategic nuclear weapons against the West will bring the end of Putin’s Russia. I would take a nuclear threat seriously, but if Putin goes that way, his fall will happen sooner.
Does mobilization change the balance of forces?
Militarily, mobilization will not change much on the ground. The key issue right now is the quality of the military personnel that is fighting in Ukraine, and I think this quality is lost, because when Putin began his war on February 24, he had under various estimates a maximum of 50,000 really well-trained and combat-ready personnel. The rest of the troops that were assembled near the border and then sent to Ukraine were not ready for serious military operations. What has happened in the past seven months of the war is that most of the competent personnel that were there at the beginning are now out, or disabled. They are either killed or wounded, or left the battlefield and they have been relocated to their permanent stationary bases inside Russia, because there’s significant fatigue and they need to take some rest.
With this new mobilization effort, Putin will not be able to replace the lost skilled personnel with new ones. We already saw what was happening in the past few months when there was a commercial mobilization. The recruiters offered people money and huge salary by the standards of relatively poor regions — they offered 200,000 to 300,000 rubles per month. That’s about five to ten times the average salary in the regions of recruitment. All the new recruits were sent to the large training camp at Mulina in Nizhny Novgorod Region, built by the way with the help of Rheinmetall, a German company, right before the war. The results of this short training were not too impressive. One needs a much longer training, and a much more significant experience. This is really a complex war. Combat ability is not defined by your ability to fire a gun. This is an intellectual war. You really get to do operative assessment, communications and interaction with other units, and so on; modern war is sophisticated.
The Russians will not be able to overcome the problems they confronted during the summer. Putin just continues to play with the numbers. When he launched the invasion, he completely overlooked everything beyond the numbers, like morale, combat readiness. His judgement is extremely poor, even absent. And these are decisive factors on the battlefield.
But is it only his judgement? Did the people around him — civilian, military, intelligence — also misjudge the situation, or did they understand it better, but could not talk Putin into listening to their concerns?
I assume that there might be some people who are aware that morale and combat readiness matter. But, from what I know about how the Russian military operates, this is all heavily grounded in simplifying everything down to numbers of troops. That’s a tradition, so there was never a high level and sophisticated system of assessing combat readiness, and particularly the morale of the troops. So, you are right, it’s not just Putin, it’s the general attitude of the top commanders of the Russian Army. They are making a big mistake. They will probably throw more people into the fight who are not ready to fight in a modern sophisticated war, and that means more losses. If we look at casualties, we see that since mid-April, after Russia switched strategy and stepped back from the idea of a full-scale assault on Ukraine on many fronts, and just concentrated their efforts on Donbas and the South, the Russian army gained relatively limited territory, but have suffered more losses than in the first couple of months of the war, when they attacked Ukraine on many fronts — Kyiv, Chernihiv, Mikolaiv, Odesa… It means that, with a less skilled military force, there will be many casualties, because these military are not well trained.
What is the point of calling very publicly for a “partial” mobilization if it will not significantly increase their fighting capacity? And the Russian authorities are taking a risk by doing it — it may be the reason why they have not done it earlier — which is to incite a lot of protest and people trying to flee Russia. Do they think very short-term, and have the illusion that they will scare the Ukrainians by amassing more troops? Or could it plainly be that they do not really have a strategy? They are taking risks by stirring up anxiety in every single town and village of Russia, where every other family is concerned.
What we have been observing in the past few months is the result of the lack of a coherent strategy. They try one option after another. Once they find out that one option does not work, they try the next one. You remember when everybody expected Putin to announce mobilization on May 9, but he didn’t, although he needed more men. So he tried a different method — recruitment for money. And some other unorthodox methods of recruitment, like recruiting prisoners and employees of state corporations which were given mandatory orders to send some of their employees to war.
The head of the mercenary Wagner group, Evgeny Prigozhin, has been trying to hire men in prisons…
This reveals very primitive thinking. The generals come to Putin. Putin demands victory. The generals come to Putin and say: we cannot achieve anything if we do not have like 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 more men, please, Vladimir Vladimirovich, give us more men. Putin says: I will give you more men, but you have got to deliver on the battlefield. On paper, just like before the invasion, this might look like a plan. In actual fact, we know the flaws already. Putin has great trouble admitting his flaws, which means that he will simply try the most primitive tactic available.
But discontent will grow. We see tensions emerging in society about this. And I remember the 1980s with the Afghan war and the 1990s with the Chechen war. Russians are very skilled at evading military draft. There is an all-out cat and mouse game. There is not enough of healthy combat-ready men. I think the quality of manpower is much poorer than the regime hopes. I remind you that he Ukrainian Army is very experienced, trained, and equipped with advanced western weaponry.
What you are describing is a game of everybody lying to everybody. This was clear on the evening of February 21, when Putin gathered his men and one woman of the Security Council. They all looked terrified, wondering what he was going to announce. You are saying that it can only be a failure. Do you expect organized protest in some cities? Do you expect more disruption that might become a threat to the regime, to local administrations? When will people in the Kremlin understand that with this mobilization, and continuing the war, they might lose what they need most, which is for people to stay quiet?
We should not expect major outbursts of visible protest soon, because people are very scared. Let’s think of the horrible year 2021, when most of the organized opposition was destroyed: Aleksey Navalny is in prison, other folks are in prison, many others are under criminal investigations and forced into exile. So, people look at this and say : well, if Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin, and other opponents are in prison, can I alone stand against this system? When the Navalny network was active, there was an organization which could act as a driver of protest. Spontaneous protest is the easiest for the FSB to crack down on…
People are trying to leave Russia, but often cannot leave. So, fear is increasing. Fear can paralyze, or generate panic.
People do not want to spend even one year in prison, and might prefer to go to war, that’s the psychology. I do not expect huge protests. But mobilization will shift people’s attitudes away from Putin. Not just only in connection with men being recruited against their will, but also with economic problems: the stock market collapsed again.
This means that criticism of Putin is rising.
Yes, but there is the question of what they can do, because there is no collective decision making. Everything is very compartmentalized. And everyone is managing his own narrowly designated area. Some of my friends still work for the state services. When I talk to them, I sense an atmosphere of stronger fear than within the opposition circles. I jokingly ask them the question: when do you plot to overthrow Putin finally? And they say: listen we cannot even discuss this at one-on-one meetings, our discontent with Putin, because it will most likely be recorded and reported. A meeting of a group of three, four, five, six officials discussing how much they dislike the situation in the country and want to do something about it will be surely reported to Putin.
You believe that the end of Putin’s regime will take time. Yet open criticism of Putin and of the military command is on the rise in your country. Since the Kremlin claimed the “annexation” of four regions of Ukraine, resistance against mobilization is growing, the Russian army seems to be in disarray, and the Ukrainian army is carrying on its counteroffensive successfully. Don’t you think developments might take on greater speed in Russia?
The key enemy of the free world is unrealistic expectations. People want anything fast and at once. Defeat Putin in Ukraine soon, overthrow him in Russia as soon as possible. Some people say that if sanctions haven’t stopped Putin in a few months, it means that they’re “not working”, which is deeply wrong. We need to calm down and not be impatient. See how the Ukrainians are advancing to retake the occupied territories? They do it cautiously, take their time, to make sure all the necessary preparations are taken, the enemy is exhausted, and they advance at the most favorable moment, disregarding whether their timing satisfies anybody’s impatience or not. We should behave like this in Russia. Organization of resistance and building momentum takes time. What we’re seeing are good signs of growing discontent, but the protests are still not ripe and relatively easily crushed. Yes, Putin is losing territory in Ukraine quickly — but it would still take great effort and time to recapture all occupied territories. His system is weakened, but still strong. Putin is still standing. We need to be patient, let’s not create unrealistic timeframe expectations, because this will only result in our own disappointment, and not help actually to defeat Putin.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen several cases of public attacks on Putin asking him to leave power. There were the letters from the St Petersburg and Moscow municipal deputies on September 11. And the Council for human rights also asked Vladimir Putin personally in his capacity as President of the Russian Federation whether it was true that he was sending jailed criminals to fight in Ukraine.
Municipal deputies have no authority. Municipal councils in Moscow and St Petersburg have been effectively stripped of all their authority in the past twenty years. Their power is symbolic. Generally speaking, the nomenclature is the last place where you will see open discontent, because they are very afraid, and there is little they can do. Putin has been preparing for a siege. He has a well-trained, and well-paid, well-equipped 30,000 to 50,000-strong presidential guard, [the Federal Protection Service] FPO1, not to be confused with the National Guard. Putin transferred the communications control system to the FPO, so he can listen to anyone’s conversations. It’s not under the FSB’s control anymore. I hear speculation that generals might depose Putin. But, before generals are allowed into Putin’s room, they are all disarmed.
Vladimir Putin at a concert marking the “annexation” of Ukrainian territories on September 30, 2022. // Photo: kremlin.ru
So the Federal Protection Service is Putin’s best protection.
Yes, this Service is headed by Major General Dmitry Kochnev. Only these people know where Putin is, physically, at any given time. He constantly travels between his residences: Novo-Ogarevo, Sochi, Valdai, Altai, wherever.
What do you think of Putin’s government?
In recent years, Putin has been pushing out of government anybody who was somewhat independent, or influential, and replaced them with technocrats. Just remember, fifteen years ago, we had Aleksey Kudrin as finance minister, German Gref as economics minister, Sergey Ignatiev, who was a big authority among economists, as chairman of the Central Bank. Now the finance minister is a yes man, Anton Siluanov. At the Central Bank — a loyal yes woman Elvira Nabiullina. This is the trend. Putin got rid of every person even remotely looking like a potential challenger.
Now we come to sanctions which bite more since the beginning of the war. How effective are sanctions in impacting the nomenclature and the ruling elite? Should we go for more sanctions, and which?
First, sanctions are very effective. They are having a deep effect on the economy. Largely, if you are speaking about the influence on the nomenclature, its members feel like Russia has been completely cut off from the civilized world on all fronts, personally, individually, financially, technology-wise, logistics-wise, marketwise. This is a major example of the de-globalization of a major country, of a major economy, which has never happened to such an extent. Because, when sanctions were introduced against Iran or North Korea, or Cuba, these countries were not really globalized or integrated and did not play a major part in the global economy. But Russia was. So, this disconnection is a very significant downshifting for all these people. They had a career, they built some sort of reputation, wealth, and then they could settle their families in the West. That is destroyed now. They are all trapped in a kind of concentration camp under the supervision of the FSB, with no future. There is no prospect for things to change or improve.
Can the West do more? Yes, of course. Myself and some other opposition figures are discussing a lot of specific ideas with advisers and Western governments. Russian digital infrastructure is so dependent on the West that you have the opportunity to shut down the banking system, the communications system and so on, and that will take Russia back to the 1980s in terms of technology. Readers can find my article at the Globe-Sec.org website on the effect of sanctions. I will continue to do more. But sanctions have a gradual strangling effect. Many people have this illusion that sanctions must have an instant effect, and Putin will reconsider his policy. This is not going to happen. Putin is very stubborn. His repressive apparatus and propaganda are prepared to cover defeats and failures. Putin is constantly escalating the situation. So we need to look at sanctions realistically. They are a very serious, effective instrument, but this is an instrument of exhaustion, attrition of Putin. You need to understand that Putin believes in his resource supremacy, from oil and gas to an unlimited stock of Soviet equipment, shells, rockets, missiles.
The man is not well in his mind?
Indeed. He believes that he can outlast the West in this protracted standoff. He is wrong. The sanctions play a key role. If we talk about defeating Putin in a long-protracted standoff, sanctions will lead to a gradual collapse of important areas of the Russian economy, society, living standards, and this is already happening. Major industries are brought to a halt, or their output is significantly cut. If you look at the industrial picture, like car makers, transport, machine building, manufacturing of locomotives, rail coaches, engines, internal combustion engines, electric engines, it’s all down. The more complex the equipment, the more dependent it is on international cooperation and suppliers of technology and spare parts, the greater the impact of sanctions. These industries are also very job intensive. Primitive import substitution industries, like poultry farming, do not generate many new jobs. Machine-building generates new jobs. About 40% of all employment in the manufacturing industry is machine building.
Many in Europe came to the conclusion that the sanctions imposed in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of eastern Donbas did not stop Putin from launching and all-out war in Ukraine eight years later. Sanctions are not meant to stop Putin, but rather to exert increasing pressure in a war of attrition?
The West has done a remarkably good job on sanctions, but much more needs to be done, so we need to better understand the current effects, what else can be done and enhance these policies. Now, an interesting point about what could have happened after 2014 — it will be perpetually debatable — I’m personally inclined to think that it was not the sanctions that could have stopped Putin from invading, but a totally different policy on Ukraine’s NATO accession and on arming Ukraine. The West has been deliberately delaying arming Ukraine, this was a terrible mistake on the part of American intelligence and the West, because they thought that Ukraine would lose in just a few days and that it was not worth supplying military equipment. They should have been arming after the Crimea and Donbas invasion.
I believe Western inaction was a major factor in driving Putin’s decision to invade in February 2022. He thought that Ukraine was weak militarily. If Ukraine had been properly armed, we probably would not have seen all this happening. Western governments should have taken a totally different course on Ukraine’s admission to NATO. Ukraine deserved at least a membership action plan (MAP) a long time ago.
You were critical of the Minsk Agreements, from the start.
Yes, of course, because the Minsk Agreements were part of the problem. They have given Putin breathing space. This mistake must never be repeated again, because it was very clear from the beginning that he will come back and strike again.
Vladimir, you are a fine expert on energy, how do you see the Russian authorities dealing with the energy challenge, when we stop, step by step, buying hydrocarbons from Russia?
This is a challenge of huge proportions, because there is no alternative market besides Europe for Russian oil and gas; only for oil to a limited scale in Asia and this comes with huge discounts, because there is not a big niche available, and there is no huge deficit of oil in Asia to accommodate all these large volumes from Russia. Asian buyers, companies, are very pragmatic people. They are fully aware of the difficulties that Russians find themselves in. So, they demand steep discounts. The current price differential between Brent and Urals Oil is about $25. It was over $35 in the past few months, so this is the discount price at which Russians are forced to sell oil to Asia, China and others, plus the costs are significantly higher. In gas, there is not even the infrastructure. To build it, one needs hundreds of billions of dollars, and a lot of time.
Europe was a very generous market, in close proximity, with a well-developed infrastructure, with large profits. The Asian market will not yield significant profits, meaning that the magnitude of hydrocarbons revenue that Russia received from the European market will not be repeated in Asia.
At the Samarkand meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization mid-September, we observed that Putin was not treated with much deference by the Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Kyrghyz leaders. They do not agree with his war of aggression.
Yes, these leaders read Putin’s body language. They see that Russia is in a weaker position. They do not want to break ties with Putin but are using Russia to their own advantage. There is no alliance around Putin, but a number of non-aligned countries which are quite pragmatic, sometimes cynical, pursuing their selfish interests. No country in the world aligns with Putin, except North Korea, Belarus, Syria.
Do you think that, in the near future, you may have a good reason to form a government of Russia in exile?
With my colleagues of Navalny’s team, we are against the idea of a government in exile, because we fundamentally do not want to take powers that were not given to us by the people.
Or a transitional Cabinet, like democratic Belarus?
The position of [the leader of democratic Belarus] Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya is different, because she ran against Lukashenko in the presidential election of August 9, 2020, and she won. She has legitimacy because she received the support of a large majority of Belarussians.
We do not want to claim powers that were not given to us by the people. We also have a long experience of forming different coordinating bodies of the opposition. Attempts to unite immediately may cause unnecessary infighting about who is the boss, who has the most influence, and so on. We believe that, right now, it is much better for each of us to perform the task that one does best at his position: broadcasting for Russians who want to hear our message, who are still inside the country, changing public minds in the country through our influence, interacting with Western governments and enhancing their vision of sanctions policy, asking Russians living abroad or in exile for any positive contribution they can make.
Our firm position is what we always fought for: free and fair elections in Russia. We believe that we will be in a good position to take part in future governance and contribute to reforming Russia, making it a normal country at peace with the world. But a mandate for that should be given to us by the people of Russia in a free election, not earlier.
Often quoted as FSO, its Russian acronym. ↩