Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Portnikov in an interview with Maciej Stasiński, journalist at the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, spoke of Russia’s collapse, Western arms for Ukraine, and reforms in Ukraine during wartime.
Debaltseve has fallen. What does it mean for the war?
Until yesterday I thought that Vladimir Putin was playing chess and had discovered a serious combination. If he wanted to reassure the West and at the same time to destabilize Ukraine, then it would have been logical to sign the peace treaty in Minsk on the ceasefire along the entire frontline and to continue to wage war in Debaltseve indefinitely. And in that way he succeeds in destabilizing Ukraine — he proposes peace along the entire front line, the West weakens sanctions, and battles continue in Debaltseve until Ukraine agrees that it belongs to the self-proclaimed republics.
However, I overestimated Putin. He is not a chess player; he is engaged in bowling. What will he do when he finally attaches Debaltseve to his “republics” and straightens out the entire frontline? Either he immediately declares peace for the entire front or he must advance. Either he gives up Donbas or he controls it. This way is bad and that was is bad.
Leaving Donbas under (Russian) control is really a gift for Ukraine and a nail in the coffin of the Russian economy. Because Russia does not have money for Donbas. And in the opposite case, as was planned in Minsk, if Donetsk and Luhansk return to Ukraine as autonomous regions, their leaders will immediately go to Kyiv for money and soon will start crying “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to her Heroes!” And then this would become a problem for us because we do not have money to rebuild Donbas either.
The Minsk agreement does not matter. It was a ploy by Putin, who knew that the West had already had enough and that he only had to hint at peace for Merkel and Hollande to come rushing over. After all, they want to calm him down at any price, and, as psychiatrists, will offer him yet another dose of medicine.
But now these rebellious regions are receiving money from Moscow!
And Russia cannot afford to support them. Putin has driven himself into a corner. I knew many Soviet KGB agents — (Viktor) Chebrikov, (head of the KGB 1982-1988 — Ed.), (Vladimir) Kryuchkov (head of KGB, 1988-1991). They had all kinds of people, analysts, intellectuals and martinets. Putin is more like a martinet.
But perhaps this martinet is effective?
Well if your companion in a bar suddenly throws the entire table with dishes and food at you, you don’t know what to do either. And the one who is doing the throwing, what is he to do now? He must destroy the entire bar. In order to do it in time before the police arrive. And they will arrive sooner or later.
What represents police for Putin?
There are many components. First, the international community. Sanctions have already caused enormous damage to Russia and they are hurting the oligarchs. The West will not remove sanctions, especially not now after Debaltseve. Russia is moving from an oligarchic state to one that is militarized and criminal. Second, the drop in oil and gas prices is killing Russia. Third, there is the Ukrainian nation, as pathetic as it may appear.
Putin was successful when he was advancing where he could count on support. Now he has reached the end. Yesterday a friend was telling me about the mood in Mariupol, the key city for the land bridge to Crimea. The population there is visibly pro-Ukrainian. People adore the Azov ultra-nationalist battalion that is fighting the Russians. They want to protect themselves from thugs. And this is a Russian speaking population in Mariupol!
But perhaps Putin is gaining time and counting on the idea that Ukrainians will tire of war and crisis, reject their government and elect another pro-Russian one? Is revolution possible in Ukraine?
Without Putin the demoralization in Ukraine would be much worse. Viktor Yanukovych destroyed the economy and maintained stability with the help of credits and cheap Russian gas.
The new command is not all that knowledgeable about reforms and is carrying them out very slowly. After Maidan, and without the war, they would have carried out the reforms even more cautiously and matters would be even worse. Then the east and south of Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Mykolaiiv, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Crimea, Zaporizhzhia — would have assumed that the crisis and lowered standard of living was the fault of Maidan and they would have sent the old command back to Kyiv, only with some cosmetic updates. And Putin would have received a controlling stake in Ukraine’s actions without any war.
It is true that Ukrainians may turn away from the current government. But they will never again elect a pro-Russian one. Reforms in Bulgaria and Romania – even though both countries are in the EU — are not proceeding smoothly either. Bulgarians and Romanians can turn away from their government, but they do not stop being Bulgarians and Romanians. The same thing is now true in Ukraine.
But they may agree to a government that will listen to Moscow.
As Finland did to the USSR? For Russia, Finland was a separate nation. And the compliant government still ruled the country independently and made money on trade with Russia. When it comes to Ukraine, Russia views it as part of Russia, as Malorossiya (Little Russia). And most Ukrainians view Russia as the invader and thief. It is a “brother” who turns out to be an enemy. Russia will no longer be able to occupy Donbas with Ukrainian money. If Ukraine submits to Russia, there will be no credits from the West; but there will also be no cheap oil and gas from Russia. And there will be no market economy at all.
Additionally, there will never be a pro-Russian government in Ukraine because it will not exist in Russia itself, at least the kind of Russia that we have known for the last 300-400 years. Putin has done everything to destroy Russia.
It was not Maidan that did it. The entire cycle of historical decline in Russia began approximately 100 years ago. The ghost of Pilsudski (Polish statesman responsible for resurrecting the Polish state in 1918) rises from the grave. Remember that 100 years ago Pyotr Stolypin (Russian prime minister in early 1900s) said in the Russian State Duma that “you need great upheavals, and we need a great Russia,” The “you” was referring to the Poles. Because this was his response to the deputy of the Polish circle in the Duma who wanted to restore the Polish language in schools.
Russia is dying before our eyes. It first became ill in 1905, it died in 1917, and then it was resurrected in 1922 in order to rot until 1991. Now is the final collapse.
If such a huge state fails, this is a disaster for all who are nearby.
Of course. This is why the whole world needs to prepare for it. And not to take revenge on Russia for everything it has done in history, but to help Russians — and other oppressed people — to become a modern, free and democratic country, to the extent that this is possible.
Today we have been backed into a corner. Putin has reached the end of expansion and is standing on the brink of the abyss. He wants to return to being the superpower of the past, but there is no possibility or understanding on how to do it. He will thrash about. And you have to be careful with him.
Ukraine cannot be broken by Russia? In Poland in 1980 there were 10 million people in Solidarity, but a year later, as a result of poverty and discouragement, the support decreased and martial law was declared.
On Maidan a new Ukrainian political nation was born. First of all, in central and western Ukraine. During Maidan, half of Ukrainians were able to become this political nation and the other half were not. Now because of the war all of Ukraine has become one nation. Thus the Ukrainian political nation was founded by two people: Viktor Yanukovych in western and central Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin in the east and south.
Once a political nations emerges it does not cease to exist if it is not destroyed. In December 1981, the Poles who stopped supporting Solidarity did not say they would become Germans if they had no money. Ukrainians have decided they are Ukrainians and they will never be something else. Even if their living standards worsen.
We have almost 50 million Ukrainians in the process of building a state. We will not be a Russian province. Ukraine cannot return to a past under Russia’s wing. What is happening in Ukraine happened earlier in Poland. After crossing the Red Sea there is no return. When Maidan began I said it was a historical process. It is independent of our opinions or of some stupid agreements.
But this process can be reversed. Russian occupation in southern Ukraine, in Crimea, in other regions can stop it.
Yes, but at the cost of countless graves of Russian soldiers and eventually the collapse of the Putin regime. After all, average Russians do not think they are fighting in Ukraine. I keep getting hundreds of messages from Russian who ask me “What do you want from us? Why don’t you like us? There is no Russian army in Ukraine. There are only our volunteers who are defending the population from fascists!”
Russia is not Ukraine. It is a scattered society that is united only through the payments received from the central government. When they end, everything will end.
In Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine the political nation arose only after Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Odesa is a bustling city. The sea, the sun, the parks. People there love life. When they saw what is happening in Donetsk, they became Ukrainians, since nobody wants the situation to resemble Donetsk.. Perhaps it is not a political nation according to Jürgen Habermas (German sociologist who wrote on the nation state — Ed.), but in the usual sense of the need for survival. We are Ukrainians, because all of us — in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa and so on — want to live together in peace.
In 2012 I spoke with a highly placed Russian official. He said the next president of Ukraine would be Viktor Medvedchuk.
I answered: “You must be crazy. In our country the people choose. And Medvedchuk has 1% support.”
He answered me: “You don’t understand anything. This is what Vladimir Putin has decided.”
I remembered that in 1994 Islam Kamirov (president of Uzbekistan — Ed.) told me the same thing in Uzbekistan: “We decided that the next president of Ukraine is Leonid Kuchma.”
I also told him that “in our country people choose.” He answered “You’re a child! This is what Boris Yeltsin has decided.
At that time I thought that Kamirov did not understand, but he did understand and I did not. I was wrong because, in fact, I was a child. Because at that time there was no nation and the others could decide. But today, 20 years later, there is a Ukrainian people. The others hold on to their old ideas and think they can still decide.
President Poroshenko is friends with the Russian ambassador in Kyiv. He and Putin use the familiar “you” with each other. But our leaders have not grown sufficiently to speak on equal terms to the Russians and in their native language at a time when the society is now entirely different.
And who are the separatists?
There are no separatists. There is only the Russian secret service, their agents, and vulgar thugs. In the former Soviet Union there were no separatists. There was only the KGB, which prepared conflicts as required. Some of them were ethnic, others political. Such as in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Or Transnistria and Crimea.
Twenty years ago the situation in Crimea was the same as today. Only then post-Soviet leaders such as Leonid Kuchma and Yevhen Marchuk ruled in Kyiv — people who had good relations with Moscow and kept everything under control. In Crimea and in the east of Ukraine there was some support for Russia, but mostly it was support for the local feudal power, whatever it happened to be. In Crimea during the last free elections, Aksenov’s pro-Russian party emerged, which wanted to unite Crimea to Russia. It received 3 % of the votes. As soon as Russia stops paying, Crimeans will become Ukrainian patriots. The consciousness there is not political but local.
Crimea was and will be, one it is liberated, a complicated region in Ukraine. Like South Tyrol in Italy, the Basque Country in Spain, and upper Silesia in Poland. Ukraine should determine the status of these regions, but this does not mean it should refuse them just because they are difficult. The Ukrainian political elite has not accepted the loss of Crimea. Only now we have something urgent: stopping the war and freeing the Donbas. Then we can discuss Crimea. It wouldn’t survive even 10 days without Ukraine.
Russia cannot control eastern Ukraine as it does Ossetia and Abkhazia?
No, because there is no money. Transnistria, for example, has not received $100 million for pensions and benefits. The president was told he had to solve the problem by himself. The sum of $100 million is small change for the Donbas.
The people who live there simply want to live peacefully and they don’t care who makes it happen, and they don’t care who provides financial support. These are Soviet people. We need to remember that when Soviet Ukraine was formed, the Donetsk-Kryviy Rih Republic was located on these lands. It was supposed to become part of Russia and not Ukraine. The head of the People’s Commissars of this republic, Artyom Sergeyev, was a Russian nationalist. And Lenin and Stalin had to explain to him why including this republic in Ukraine was the only way to defeat the Ukrainian peasant spirit and nationalism. Because it was an exclusively industrial region. Only 3% of people there live from agriculture. The Bolshevik Russia wanted to destroy this country, the land-owning Ukraine, where there were wealthy peasants and the Russian ones were poor.
We have to admit that it would be impossible to build a Ukrainian state with this population. But this does not mean that Ukraine must give up the Donbas. Our people are dying in this war. The economy is becoming marginalized. For us this means losses. This is a complicated region that needs money, but this does not mean that we should get rid of it.
I’m simply arguing that Putin loses when he seizes Donbas as well as when he refuses it.
But he is cutting off parts of Ukraine piece by piece and moving on and on.
Russia expected pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, but this did not happen. Putin can go only as far as the population supports him. His influence does not extend beyond the industrial regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. He is counting on the destabilization of all of Ukraine. He cannot give up Donetsk and Luhansk and he cannot leave them.
Ukraine must entrench itself along the line where it can stop Russia. Russia actually has nowhere to go. It will not be able to take Odesa. It will not establish a land link to Crimea.
What errors has the West made in the Ukrainian situation?
I don’t think the West has made serious errors. Merkel, Hollande and Obama are acting on the assumption that they are dealing with a dangerous lunatic who must be treated. If you are fighting bacteria or a virus, the treatment needs to continue for an extended time. They are acting slowly and carefully so the patient doesn’t do anything too terrible.
My Russian colleagues tell me: “Just think what Putin would do if he found out he has been cornered?”
I don’t even want to think about it. So it is very important for Putin not to realize that he has been cornered like a rat. Because, if he realizes it in time, I wouldn’t bet on our safety or even yours. A rat in that situation turns around and attacks the pursuer. Then it is all the same for him whether the country is in NATO or not.
Putin is not stupid, but right now he believes that history is on his side. And that’s the way it should be for as long as possible. He needs to sit in a corner not knowing that he is waiting for the rat catcher. Or the collapse of Russia.
Should the West arm Ukraine?
Yes. We do not have weapons. For almost nine months we have been protecting ourselves empty-handed. I understand that Western countries are afraid that we will not be able to handle modern equipment and that it will fall into Russian hands. But at least give money for the manufacture of weapons in our factories, because we have a defense industry, but we have no money. Ukraine needs to create an army that is no smaller than the armies in the NATO countries. Because then Ukraine could defend Poland and the eastern flank of NATO from Putin. Ukraine should be armed openly but carefully. Without American weapons and American instructors. They could be of any origin, and the instructors could be Georgians, for example.
We have a problem that many Ukrainians don’t want to fight for Donbas specifically. It is difficult to convince them that if they hesitate too much Russia could soon be in Uzhhorod in Zakarpattia.
Isn’t it a problem that at the forefront in Ukraine’s defense, in the Azov battalion, there are people Putin has called Nazis and who could actually be them?
No it is not a problem. In Azov there are people with different viewpoints. Many hold certain views for reasons of fame and career. It is true that there are fascists as well. But when it comes to the defense of the country, it is impossible to choose only people with admirable ideas. The liberally inclined scientists and lecturers are not likely to want to fight in great numbers. The fact that Russia’s main enemies in the war are people with nationalistic, rightwing views is not surprising either. Because the ruling elite in Russia is building a national-socialist state. They want a Greater Russia and their opponents want a Great Ukraine.
But in general there are very few people like that in Ukraine. Support for them is close to zero. The Right Sector and Svoboda parties together drew 3% of the vote during the last election.
Is Ukraine capable of reform right now, during the war?
I’m afraid not. The process of creating new institutions and adopting new legislation is slow and long. Until now Ukrainians were a nation of revolutions. Only now is there a chance to become a political people with institutions. As the Poles did in 1918.
A year ago the main task of Ukrainian Maidan was to return to an oligarchic state. Because during the Yanukovych era Ukraine became a criminal country. After Maidan we returned to the situation of the 2009-2010 years and began to develop on a higher level. But this is a complicated process to reform the country. You need the participation of citizens. You have to convince them to accept material losses as a result of the reforms. It is necessary for the government to be competent, to become decentralized so that self-government can develop, and to avoid the return of the oligarchic system. All this is institutionally very difficult. And the war continues.
If you ask the average Ukrainian today if his life is better, he will tell you it is much worse. And this is true. He will also say that Russia is guilty but his government is also guilty. And this is good. Ukrainians like the Poles never like their governments. In contrast to the Russians.