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Russia is preparing many scenarios for Ukraine

A conversation with Maria Avdeeva, research director at the European Expert Association in Ukraine. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt

January 19, 2022 - Adam Reichardt Maria Avdeeva - Hot TopicsInterviews

Photo courtesy of Maria Avdeeva.

The audio of this interview is available as a podcast exclusively for patrons of Talk Eastern Europe. Sign up and listen here. 

ADAM REICHARDT: I would like to start with your reaction to the negotiations between the West and Russia which took place over last week. There were US-Russia bilateral talks; the NATO-Russia Council meeting; and the OSCE meeting which discussed Russian intentions in Ukraine. All of the talks ended up with little or no result. How do you see them and how were these discussions covered and interpreted in Ukraine?

MARIA AVDEEVA: In Ukraine we were not really expecting much from them. Since the beginning, the administration in the United States said that it was some kind of explanatory talks. They didn’t even call them negotiations, they called them just talks, where each party was able to put their concerns on the table. And that is why for me personally, and generally for experts in Ukraine, we did not look for much results. But it was a good sign that that the US, NATO and the European Union showed Russia and the Kremlin that there are two paths they can take; and one of these paths is diplomatic talks. After the talks, Russia’s top officials said that they do not think that the results were sufficient and they do not see these talks as progressive or productive. However, on the other hand, this path of diplomatic talks remains an option and it still can be used and it is still not closed, and I think that was the most important result for Ukraine.

This week the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was in Kyiv before heading to Moscow for some last minute European diplomacy. I am just curious, since we are talking about the diplomatic side for the moment, how was her visit interpreted in Ukraine and what is your take?

It was appreciated, especially since she made her visit first to Kyiv, not to Moscow. And such moves are usually very valuable for Kyiv because it shows that the position of Ukraine and the position of the Ukrainian government is important for our partners. However, she emphasised that Germany is firm on the position of not supplying Ukraine any weapons and that is not good news for Ukraine. But that was the German position with the previous government and it remains the same with this government. However, this new government took a stronger position towards Russia and the minister of foreign affairs herself had made statements showing that the current Kremlin politics are unacceptable.

How do you see the Russian demands for the West? These demands include guarantees that Ukraine and others will never join NATO, along with the demand for NATO to even move back to pre-1997 positions. Basically, Russia is demanding from the West to negotiate the future of Ukraine without Ukraine’s actual involvement. Obviously, at least in my opinion, these demands are impossible to meet. So why do you think Russia makes such demands? Is it just a way to push its own interest or is it looking to give impossible demands as an excuse to escalate the situation?

There are two possible scenarios I see here. But before speaking about them, I would like to just say a few words on Putin’s current politics. Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union; he speaks about this openly. He has stated that in his speech in December, before the new year, talking about the great loss that the collapse of the USSR has been to him personally, as he also mentioned in his Munich speech many years ago (in 2007 during the Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century – editor’s note). In that speech, he said that the former Soviet republics have taken his people, the Russian people, Russian territories and Russian property and that it was unacceptable for Russia, and Russia should want to get all that back.  He feels that now is the moment when he can restore this sphere of influence and restore the USSR, and Ukraine is crucial for that because without Ukraine there cannot be any restoration of the former power of the empire. That is why Putin aims to get more control over Ukraine and why he puts forward these demands – or I would rather call it an ultimatum.

Back to the two scenarios which I see could unfold in the current situation. The first one is that he will not go into any further negotiations. Putin understands that these demands would be rejected because NATO will never give any guarantees over new members since it is the sovereign countries who conduct their will by joining NATO, it is not NATO that is dragging them into the Alliance. So one possible scenario is that he understands this and that he understands that the demands will be rejected which gives him the possibility to escalate the situation and make aggressive moves towards Ukraine. The second scenario is that he is overestimating his position and he will be ready to return to some diplomatic talks and in order to get something different instead. But if he deliberately overestimates his position before that, then anything given to Putin would look like a concession from the West, which Putin apparently wants.

This is similar to the situation we saw last year, actually. There was a build-up and then the concession that was given was a kind of de-facto permission to allow the Nord Stream pipeline to be completed which was followed by de-escalation. I think your assessment is correct. In terms of the second scenario, however, what would it take, do you think, for Putin to de-escalate? What kind of concession? The demand for Ukraine to never join NATO is off the table. So is there anything in this scenario that could work in a way that Putin would then come back and say he was victorious and Russia would start de-escalating and moving back its troops?

Speaking about the similarities to the situation with the spring 2021 build-up, I would agree with you, but only partly. This time the troops are still coming. Putin is massing troops more and more, the number is growing, and we see new videos of upcoming troops from the [Russian] Far East, which has never happened before. The situation is really serious and we see that from the intelligence assessments of Ukraine and western services. But speaking about the concessions, actually, the only power Putin sees he can speak to is the United States. What he wants is for the US to say that it sees Russia as an equal power and it is ready to discuss questions only between the US and Russia; since Putin never considered the European Union as an institution that is powerful enough. Russian policies were targeting the European Union’s integrity, not speaking about Ukraine and other countries, of course. So Putin thinks the only power equal to Russia is the US and the concessions might be some steps that the US can take that will allow Putin to show to his domestic audience, to the Russian people, that “we are back in the old times of Cold War era, we are ruling the world, and Americans are doing what we want”.

You are based in Eastern Ukraine, in Kharkiv, which is not too far from the front lines that divide the territory Ukraine has control over. How is the atmosphere there right now, with well over 100,000 troops on the other side of the border? How worried are Ukrainians in Kharkiv and are they preparing for some sort of escalation? Obviously, they have lived with the situation of war over the last seven years…

Kharkiv is only 40 kilometres from the border, so it is very close. It is one of the cities that is almost always on recent maps that are circulated on the web, where you see these arrows pointing from Russia indicating a direction of possible attacks. Also, you are very right when you say that Ukraine is living in a state of war for more than seven years now. We have about 500,000 people who have real war experience – military personnel who have already been in the real war and are, of course, ready to fight. That is a large number of people who are ready for combat, who showed their readiness, and who know what to do. Ukraine also is preparing for what is called territorial defence – self-defence units that will act in the case of a full-scale Russian invasion and will be ready to conduct insurgency actions. Women also participate in such activities.

But generally, the situation is normal. People are quite worried only because of the news and videos coming from Russian sources, showing military equipment on the move and tanks at railways stations. That is really worrisome. But then, civil society [organisations] and experts are trying to explain to Ukrainians that what Russia wants is to have the Ukrainian population in panic and chaos, and that generally it has always been one of the goals. So it could be a deliberate tactic of threatening the population and we should assess these moves with caution, and we should not go into a state of panic, which actually we are not witnessing now on the streets or anywhere else.

So in a sense, it can be considered an element of psychological warfare against Ukrainians, trying to at least incite panic and worry.

Yes, of course. All the time in Russian sources they circulate information about how quick they can get to Kyiv and how quick they will be in actually getting control over Ukraine, which in fact, is not the reality. It would not be an easy task for Russia in any way.

Absolutely. I think the state of the Ukrainian military and defence today is completely different than it was seven years ago… I know you have already laid down the possible scenarios, but I think it would be interesting to hear what is your opinion in terms of how likely a Russian attack actually is? And if it happens, will it be hard military advancements or should we actually expect more elements of hybrid war, such as cyberattacks, disinformation or other types of special operations?

I think that we should look at the scenarios they have used before. Usually there is some action through proxies, that will be the possible scenario, in my opinion, similar to the proxies in temporarily-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, or in Belarus, for example, on the border with Ukraine. There could be some kind of provocation which Russia could use to show that Ukraine is trying to attack. Actually, that is the narrative they have been pushing for the last three or four months, saying that Ukraine and NATO – and the US through Ukraine – are trying to somehow attack Russia. Such an incident or provocation could be used to show that “look, they are already attacking and we need to react and do something”. When they act, it is likely they will not even use their own military. For example, if we speak about possible scenarios now, the Russian troops are coming to Belarus again. Lukashenka announced that in the middle of February they will have a new Russian-Belarusian military exercise and they will be held on the border with Ukraine as well. So, what if the Belarusian military, but in reality it could be Russians in Belarusian uniforms, make some provocations and provoke Ukrainians to fight back. And then, Russia declares that as an act of aggression on the Union State of Russia and Belarus, and says that the country needs to fight back, or do the same thing it did in Donetsk and Luhansk. We see many signs of that.

New information is currently being circulated that Ukraine and the US are preparing some kind of chemical attack on Donbas. So why not use this as a pretext? Russia is preparing many scenarios for this kind of small hybrid provocation that could be used later as the possible casus belli if they need it. Also, there are cyberattacks and hybrid attacks, as you have mentioned. Ukraine experienced a very severe and strong cyberattack last week, and the Ukrainian authorities believe Russia was behind it. Many Ukrainian governmental websites were down. Although they say there was no leak of personal data, it was another act of intimidation, threatening and showing “look what we can do with your system and with your governmental bodies”. So, I guess if not a full-scale invasion, they will at least definitely try to conduct some provocations in and around Ukraine.

Should there be some sort of escalation or even Russian troop advancements further into Ukraine, what should the West’s response be? We have heard the US President Joe Biden say that there will be a tough response, but we know that any sort of direct military response is out of the question. What would Ukraine expect from its allies and friends in the West?

Of course, I think it is expected that the sanctions would be put on Russia before it attacks and there will be help to Ukraine, like military assistance before a full-scale attack. But on the other hand, I understand that the US and NATO do not want to give additional basis for aggressive activities. Some member states are already supplying and helping Ukraine, which is very valuable. For example, yesterday it was announced that the UK will supply Ukraine with anti-tank weapons, and they are stressing that these are only for defence purposes and Ukraine cannot use it for the attack. But in case Russian tanks enter Ukraine, then Ukraine would be able to use those kinds of weapons. Canada does the same thing. They announced that they will send additional troops to Ukraine (special forces to conduct training operations – editor’s note). I think those are very good steps that our partners and allies can take, to give some support now to show Russia that they are supporting Ukraine firmly and no further concessions will be given; and that no talks should take place when Russia is holding a gun to the head of Ukraine. I mean no talks with the purpose of giving concessions to Russia – if they want diplomatic talks, this path is still open. I truly hope that it will work out in a way that it will stop Russia and make Putin understand that the price he would pay in case he decides to invade Ukraine will be too high for him.

Maria Avdeeva is a research director at the European Expert Association in Ukraine. She focuses on international security, co-operation of Ukraine with the EU and NATO in combating hybrid threats and emerging security challenges. She analyses information operations and efforts to counter disinformation and threats to democracy.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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