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The Kremlin wants to dismember Ukraine

An interview with Vladimir Socor, Senior Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt.

March 15, 2022 - Adam Reichardt Vladimir Socor - InterviewsUkraineAtWar

Vladimir Socor. Photo: Adam Reichardt

ADAM REICHARDT: We are here at the Conference on Russia organised by the Baltic Defence College in Estonia. And I am getting a sense that there are two general approaches in the expert community based on the discussions that are taking place here. One side is that this is war against Ukraine is just the beginning of something bigger, that it is going to get worse and that Ukraine is not the final aim for Vladimir Putin. And the other side is that this is actually the beginning of the end for Putin and Russia itself. I am curious, what is your take on this?

VLADIMIR SOCOR: To start, I would not reduce Russia’s policies to Putin’s personality. Russia has certain historical goals in regards to Central and Eastern Europe. The goal is to dominate this region. Putin is only the latest representative of this historical Russian policy. He is doing it more effectively when compared to his Soviet predecessors and post-Soviet predecessors. Putin is a highly capable and competent statesman – by the Russian definition of that term. He has a conception of Russian national and imperial interests and of Russian great power interests and goals. And he is pursuing that conception. But Putin’s policy is not a policy of an individual character – it is a firmly institutionalised policy. It is based on a strong interagency policy in Russia. It has inputs from various Russian government agencies, including military, civilian, intelligence, economic – these inputs go into the policy that is formulated. It is not a policy based on the caprice or whim of Putin alone. And Putin announces the decisions made after elaborate internal consultations.

So you are of the opinion that the decision comes from the whole Russian establishment?


But some people are saying that Putin has lost his mind, and that someone will take Putin out and that will end this. You do not agree with such assessment?

No. But, we have a different, unprecedented situation. It is a full-scale war against Ukraine. Up until now, Russia was achieving its objectives through limited use of force, pressure and coercion. With both military and non-military instruments. Russia was effectively achieving its goals through that mix of instruments which during Putin’s time in office we came to describe as hybrid war or hybrid conflict. Now, with the full-scale war in Ukraine, we face a different situation. And we do not know for sure whether the full scale war in Ukraine is based on a strong consensus among the elite within Russia. At same time, we do not see any strong signs of dissent at the level of the elites. Putin has introduced a personal note in Russia’s policy, namely the obsession with Ukraine. This is a personal characteristic of Putin which he has successfully introduced into Russia’s policy.

Putin is not a well-educated man. He has acquired a certain level of education in his mature years. He has discovered the memoirs and political documents of the Russian White Generals during the civil war. The memoirs of Anton Denikin, which Putin has recommended to Russian officials to read. And the books of Ivan Ilyin. From these texts, Putin has drawn three lessons regarding Ukraine from the period of the First World War. First, Ukrainians are not really a nation. Yes, there are “Malorussians” (Little Russians) who are sort of subdivision of the greater Russian people; and yes they may have some interesting folkloric characteristics with their own dialect, they basically are not a nation; and Malorussians should be ruled by the greater Russians. Lesson number two is that Novorossiya is not Ukraine, it is Russia. This means the entire Black Sea Coast of present-day Ukraine – about eight provinces from Donetsk and Luhansk all the way to Odesa. And the third lesson is that no external factor and no third party should get involved in the relationships between great Russians and Malorussians. These are the three lessons that Putin has drawn, and he is pursuing his policy accordingly.

Now we have a full-scale war in Ukraine. It seems to be based on the news up until this moment. In some sense, Ukraine has already lost this war. This is because it has not received sufficient help from the West. The West has basically left Ukraine alone, to lose the war. This is my conclusion based on the fact that Ukraine has requested negotiations with Russia and is now requesting humanitarian corridors. Ukraine basically accepts that Russia has made certain conquests on the ground, conquering certain portions of the country. And Ukraine wants to mitigate the consequences by establishing humanitarian corridors to help the population with assistance or even to evacuate the population to safer zones.

I am reminded of the situation in Syria. In Syria we had this fixation on humanitarian corridors which implies the acceptance of long-term occupation of certain territories. Russian forces are now present in parts of nine Ukrainian provinces; nine out of 30: Chernihiv, Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv, Kherson – that’s seven – plus Donetsk and Luhansk is nine. If they are negotiations, if there is a ceasefire in place, it means that Russian forces will stay where they are. They will not withdraw. And Ukraine has not set the precondition of a withdrawal of Russian troops that came into Ukraine since February 24th for negotiations. So Russian forces will remain there and we could face a frozen conflict in Ukraine on a larger territorial scale than the conflict over Donbas.

Could we even see a division of Ukraine?

Yes, we could. Russia’s territorial conquest of Ukraine does not form a continuous zone. They are parts of territories, pieces and chunks throughout Ukraine. They are not continuously linked in one unitary territory. But the Kremlin has announced officially as a war aim to dismember Ukraine. Perhaps not officially, but de facto. The Kremlin statements, including Putin’s statements, between February 20th and February 25th have announced the goal that various groups of the Ukrainian population should determine their own fate according to the criteria of ethnicity and language. This has been in Putin’s speech on February 22nd, but also during the meeting of the security council. And in Putin’s speech on the morning of the invasion, he said that Ukraine is a state composed of many peoples, and various peoples should have the right to develop on their own, according to their language and ethnic origin. We do not know what form this will take. Either Russia will sponsor some separate states, like Donetsk and Luhansk, and some other separate states carved out of pieces of Ukraine. Or whether Russia would like to reorganise and restructure the Ukrainian state in its now existing form and establish federal units.

And you think this would be primarily in the east and south east of Ukraine?

We do not know. Maybe the Kremlin will toy with such options. Russian ships have approached Odesa. Odesa is fortified. But the beach is flat and it offers an easy landing ground for amphibious landings. Also the Russians can organise helicopter landings from Crimea. If Odesa is taken, this would be a catastrophe for Romania. Romania would once again become a direct neighbour with Russia. It would also be a catastrophe for Moldova. Russia would link up directly with Transnistria and would face directly with Moldova. And NATO-member Romania would become a neighbour of Russia once again. And NATO and the United States would be obligated to reinforce Romania very seriously. The same would be true of Poland, if, for example, Russian troops are stationed in Belarus near the Suwałki corridor. So NATO and the United States would face a very difficult situation in the event that Ukraine falls. The situation is fluid at the moment – everything depends on the day-to-day news. But the situation at the moment looks like Ukraine might already lose this war.

This interview took place during the Conference on Russia organised by the Baltic Defence College

Vladimir Socor is a senior fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and its flagship publication, Eurasia Daily Monitor where he writes analytical articles. Based in Munich, he is an expert on the former Soviet countries and researches Russian and western policies, focusing on energy, regional security issues, Russian foreign affairs, secessionist conflicts, and NATO policies.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

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