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Russian analyst Illarionov discusses Putin’s plans for Ukraine

Russian analyst Illarionov discusses Putin’s plans for Ukraine
Edited by: Alya Shandra
Translated text of report by Lithuanian news website Delfi from 16 January 2015
Interview with Andrey Illarionov, former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin on economic issues, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, by Sarunas Cerniauskas in Vilnius, date not given: “Illarionov: Putin Has Launched an Offensive in Europe”

Andrey Illarionov, former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin on economic issues, senior fellow at the Cato Institute (Washington), says in the interview with Delfi that Vladimir Putin has launched an offensive in Europe, using the “Islamic Spring,” which is supposed to divert the attention of the leadership of European countries.

Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimi Putin. (c) AP/Scanpix
Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimi Putin. (c) AP/Scanpix

He says that NATO is a sleeping giant, and that neither the war in Syria nor the events in Ukraine have managed to wake it up; he also says that the current Russian leadership, the factor of safety of which is one year and a half, uses that. And while the West is unable to effectively resist Russian aggression in Ukraine (according to the analyst, sanctions are ineffective), Russia will be seeking to achieve its goal: to establish the control of the territory of Ukraine using all possible ways.

Illarionov is taking part in the discussion forum of intellectuals “Russia and the West: Reality and Prospects,” which was organized in Vilnius by the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry and the Eastern Europe Studies Center.

Cerniauskas: Let us start with the scenario of the Kremlin’s attitude toward Ukraine and the West. What is most likely to happen?

Illarionov: I will talk a little about what has already happened to make it clear what could happen next. With regard to Ukraine, we see several stages of Putin’s plan to seize and to establish control of Ukraine. The original plan was to establish control over the entire country in the form in which it exists now. Over the past two decades, this meant the operation to overthrow [Leonid] Kravchuk and to bring [Leonid] Kuchma to power in 1994. Then, when it turned out that Kuchma was not what they expected, an operation to weaken him began. When [Viktor] Yanukovych won, it was viewed as a great victory, and they tried to make the most of the victory: the famous Kharkiv agreements, etc. Naturally, it was necessary to constantly control him. However, Yanukovych, apparently based on his domestic political considerations, decided to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, which, of course, did not meet the long-term plans (of the Kremlin — Delfi). Therefore, another operation started. But, one way or another, the original goal was to establish full control over the whole country.

With the resignation of Yanukovych and his escape, goals changed significantly. They changed during the Maidan. And not later than in mid-January 2014, it was decided that it would not be possible to bring western Ukraine under control under any circumstances, so it must be separated from the eastern part, and control must be established over Crimea and 11 regions of mainland Ukraine, including Kyiv. In the course of further operations it became clear: They have managed to carry out the occupation and annexation of Crimea, and then during 2014, Putin already announced eight oblasts of Ukraine (the so-called New Russia [Novorossiya]) as their goal. Three oblasts (Chernihiv, Sumska, and Kyiv) were not mentioned; apparently, already then he realized what was realistic and what was not under those circumstances. At least at that point he did not dare to say that out loud, although it was included in his plans.

The war that was unleashed on the territory of Ukraine forced Putin to realize (it was a very painful for him realization) that the eight regions would not give in, it was not possible to set the eight regions of Ukraine on fire. This was possible only in two, and only partially at that. Further military actions of the Ukrainian Army and volunteer battalions led to the situation in which the majority of the initially occupied territory was liberated and the continuation of military operations for another two-three weeks would have led to the control of the Ukrainian Government being restored in the entire territory. Then, a full-scale military invasion had to be launched, which prevented the defeat of “Lugandoniya” [Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts] (Illarionov’s term — Delfi) and helped to keep bits of the Luhansk and oblasts regions under Russian control. This was the painful moment for Putin because he had to think hard about what to do next regarding Ukraine.

I think that he still has not made a final decision, but interim decision are obvious. First, to avoid the defeat of “Lugandoniya,” this is why it is being filled with Russian military equipment and troops. Second, it was necessary to make sure that the signed by the Ukrainian leadership and the EU Association Agreement would not come into effect. “Syslibs” (systemic liberals — Delfi) were used. And thanks to the efforts of Minister [Aleksey] Ulyukayev and others, a supplementary agreement with the Ukrainian Government was signed on the agreement not coming into force until the end of 2015. The third goal that Putin formulated at a meeting in Sochi in August last year was to achieve that [Petro] Poroshenko is overthrown not later than by the end of 2015.

Summarizing, we can say this: In August 2014, Putin set three objectives to his men: to prevent a defeat of “Lugandoniya,” not to allow the commencement of the Association Agreement with the EU, and to achieve that Poroshenko is overthrown.

Cerniauskas: Meaning that two of the three tasks are already in action?

Illarionov: The first two tasks have already been implemented, the third task has not been implemented yet. It is not that he does not like Poroshenko as such. He does not like the fact that Poroshenko was elected with the votes of the entire Ukraine, by the majority of votes in all regions, for the first time in the 23 years of Ukraine’s independence. This is an unprecedented phenomenon, which has destroyed all existing in Ukraine geopolitical boundaries, which were particularly pronounced during the past two decades.

We can certainly say that Poroshenko is a military president, he is a president of war time, he is a compromise president, he is being criticized by both sides, all this is fair enough. But be that as it may, Poroshenko is the president legitimately elected in all regions of Ukraine. It is impossible to accuse him of being the president of only one part of Ukraine. And, in fact, the Kremlin’s argument cannot be used. But since the strategic goal of establishing the control over the entire Ukraine has not disappeared, and Putin has not given up the idea, Poroshenko is standing in the way of the implementation of this long-term strategic goal. This is why Putin is doing everything possible to overthrow him. And if there was a clear division between the first two objectives: One was to be carried out by “siloviki” [security, military forces] and the other one by “syslibs,” the third task to overthrow Poroshenko can only be implemented through the cooperation of the “siloviki” and “syslibs.”

According to A. Illarionov, the Kremlin wants to oust Petro Poroshenko this year (c) AFP / Scanpix
According to A. Illarionov, the Kremlin wants to oust Petro Poroshenko this year (c) AFP / Scanpix

For this purpose, a much more complicated plan comprising several elements was designed and created. One of the most important elements is Ukraine’s financial default. It is clear that a default by itself does not guarantee that Poroshenko would be overthrown, but it creates a favorable situation, an atmosphere for further action. “Syslibs” are to take care of the economic default. [Anton] Siluanov said in Moscow recently that Ukraine had violated the terms of use of a multi-billion loan, and now Russia has legal grounds to demand an early repayment of the loan. If Russia demands an immediate repayment of the loan (which it legally has the right to do) at the end of January, the Ukrainian Government will have two options: Either to repay the debt (and to remain with virtually no international reserves, which would immediately mean a default in the course of a few weeks), or to refuse to repay it, which automatically would mean a default, because it would be a default not only on unilateral loans, but also on Eurobonds.

Thus, the Ukrainian Government has a choice: either to default at the end of January or a few weeks later. This creates favorable conditions, and “siloviki” would enter the picture at this stage. And they are acting already now: subversive activities, a series of terrorist attacks in Odesa, Kharkiv, and Kyiv, which not only will not be stopped, but will be renewed and strengthened. In addition to that, there will be the mobilization of various “fifth columns” in society and in the government to create a political crisis that would lead to the dismissal of Poroshenko.

World history shows that, in most cases, default leads to the resignation of the political leadership: either the prime minister or president, or both. According to the opinion of Ukrainian commentators, they are almost in consensus that in the event of default, if anyone would have to answer for that from the executive branch, it would be Poroshenko. Then, Putin’s minimum objective would be achieved, because Ukraine would lose the legitimately elected president, and then new presidential or parliamentary elections would have to be launched, or a restructuring of the executive branch would have to be carried out. This means that the legitimately appointed defense minister, the head of the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service], the Interior Ministry, and so on would be lost for some time.

Putin would get an opportunity for a public relations campaign around the world, saying that Ukraine is a failed state, that it cannot do anything, that it does not fulfill its obligations, including its obligations to the Western creditors, and that there are no legitimate institutions in the country. All this creates exceptionally favorable circumstances for military actions and subversive activities on the territory of Ukraine and expansion of the scope of control. Even if presidential elections are held in the! near future, there is no candidate who could be elected — except Poroshenko — and who could (most importantly) get the same level of legitimacy in all regions of Ukraine that Poroshenko currently has.

Cerniauskas: Putin does not even need such a level of legitimacy…

Illarionov: Putin does not need it, Ukraine does. It is clear that perhaps there is someone (I will not give the names) who would be elected either by the votes in the west, the east, or the center of the country. In any case, the support for such person and his legitimacy would be weaker, which would allow Putin to continue his efforts to destabilize the country and to establish control over one or another part of Ukraine. Actually, this is Putin’s plan. At least, if we are talking about a relatively short forecast, until the end of 2015, it is precisely this: to use all the economic, financial, information resources and the resources of “siloviki” to destabilize the Ukrainian Government and to plunge Ukraine into a state of “ruin number two,” a civil war of everybody against everybody, which would create exceptionally favorable conditions for the implementation of various projects in its territory.

Cerniauskas: But what will happen if Poroshenko is not overthrown in the course of this year?

Illarionov: This is the goal, but if it fails, then they will do something different. Even if Poroshenko is not overthrown, if there is a default, it would lead to the most serious financial and economic, social and political crisis in the country. In any case, an additional half-front would open for Ukraine in relation to its Western allies: political, economic, financial, military — all kinds of them. Because Ukraine is not capable of servicing its debts.

Cerniauskas: However, the situation in Russia is not the best either, because of the ruble, oil prices, and so on…

Illarionov: It is all true, nevertheless, the difference is too big. Say what you like, but Russia has stocks and reserves for one year and a half at least, and Ukraine has them perhaps for a couple of weeks. The distances are different. And the question is who will be the first to reach the finish line, there is no doubt who would. If we look at the probability of default for Ukraine and Russia, the answer is absolutely obvious as well. Yes, Russia is not in the best of situations, and the situation has deteriorated considerably compared with what it was a year ago, but it is not comparable with what is happening in Ukraine.

Cerniauskas: Does this mean that there is no need to change the attitude toward the West and Ukraine for a year or a year and a half?

Illarionov: Yes, this is the minimum period. In my estimation, this is financial and economic reserve. I do not share the view that everything will collapse, there are no grounds for that. Putin, by the way, is well aware of that, this is why he continues to act in this direction. Yes, the situation has deteriorated, yes, it has become more difficult, but he has a year and a half. And he is obviously trying to use this year and a half to achieve geopolitical gains that can be achieved now, at a time when Ukraine is historically perhaps at the weakest point of its previous and perhaps future development.

Cerniauskas: Could Europe make something to ensure that Ukraine does not stay in the Russian sphere of influence so deeply?

Illarionov: I suppose it could. But let us speak straightforwardly: Europe and the United States have limited their actions to sanctions. Although they say that sanctions work, from my point of view, the sanctions are ineffective, their impact on Russia’s economic problems is minimal, and their impact on the political situation is zero. This is one thing. In the context of a full-scale armed conflict, for example, the actions of the Russian troops in Donbas in August and September [2014] were a direct invasion, there is no doubt about that. Sanctions cannot stop tanks. There are times when force can only be stopped by force. And it is clear that in a direct military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, at least based on the situation in August-September, Ukraine would be defeated. Very unwillingly, very painfully, but the Ukrainians retreated. And despite all the appeals of the Ukrainian side, the West, Europe, and the United States not only did not interfere militarily, but even refused to supply war materials, equipment, machinery, and so on. And they still do not supply that, generally speaking.

In other words, we see that Europe and the United States do not want to fight. But not only do they not want to fight, they do not even want to help the victim of the aggression with war materials. We could, of course, call on them, say that if Europe, the United States, and NATO intervened and helped, there would not be the discussions about what would happen. But we see that they do not do that, they do not want to do that. And, in my opinion, there has not been any indication yet that Europe and the West will change this position in general. Especially now, when the current president, who is not going to do that, is the head of the United States; when a man who has publicly admitted that he used to work for the Soviet and Russian intelligence services is in the NATO leadership; when the position of many European leaders, such as the president of the Czech Republic and Hungary, the Slovak prime minister, is what it is; when the mood among German businesses is what it is; when the position of [Francois] Hollande, who has virtually called to cancel the sanctions, is what it is; and so on. In other words, Europe’s attitude is in a very shaky state, and Europe is not capable of presenting itself as a mobilized force. Therefore, Ukraine has remained almost alone with the aggressor.

Cerniauskas: Is a change of the Kremlin’s course possible within the “one year and a half” term?

US President Barack Obama, according to A. Illarionov, Putin's extremely handy imperialism
US President Barack Obama, according to A. Illarionov, is extremely handy for Putin’s imperialism (C) AFP/Scanpix

Illarionov: No, there is only one direction: to increase pressure. Putin’s planning horizon is not more than two years, because, in the fall of 2016, there will be presidential elections in the United States. It is not guaranteed, but it is being widely discussed that whoever replaces Obama, will be much more consistent, decisive, and tough on Russia. Therefore, it is necessary to get the maximum geopolitical gains by then. Then the defense phase would come. The phase of attacks is  being carried out before that.

Cerniauskas: Is another wave of Russian aggression possible?

Illarionov: It is, in fact, already being carried out, and not only against Ukraine. We even discussed that this is not just a war against Ukraine, it is generally what the Kremlin propagandists call the fourth world war.” The war against the West, especially against the Anglo-Saxon West, and against the front-line states, including the Baltic States and Poland. We discussed on what fronts an offensive would begin. They say that an offensive in the east of Estonia and Latvia is possible, some kind of Narva people’s republic or Latgale people’s republic might appear. We talked about the fact that the attack is possible in eastern Georgia, after the Avar-Kakheti highway is built, creating the shortest bridge for the transfer of Russian troops, a land corridor between Russia and Armenia with the shortest distance. We talked about the fact that the Kazakhstani direction is possible, where several areas have a significant majority of Russians and Russian speakers. Of course, we talked about Belarus, which is the most tasty piece and the most obvious target of an attack and the most vulnerable one, given the isolation of the [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka regime. But Putin launched an attack not on all these fronts, he launched an attack in Europe.

This also has to do with the “Islamic Spring” operation, which I predicted back in November of last year already. I said then that when Putin carries out his program to expand the control over the former Soviet space, he will implement the concepts of “Russian World” or “Eurasian Economic Community” (it does not matter what we call it), and to neutralize the possible assistance of the West, he has to launch a campaign under the working title “Islamic spring.” But it will not be about Arab countries, it will be about Islamic movements in Europe, which will take up energy, time, resources, the energy of the leadership of European countries, and will deprive them of the capability to provide any substantial assistance and support to victims of aggression in the post-Soviet space.

Cerniauskas: Has it already started?

Illarionov: I, frankly speaking, predicted that it would begin in Europe two or three months later. I made a mistake in timing, but it seems to me that I was not wrong about the content. What we see happening in France, Germany, and some other places — I do not rule out the possibility that these are the first flashes of the “Islam spring.”

Cerniauskas:  You have mentioned Latvia and Estonia. How far can Russia go in NATO countries?

Illarionov: All you need is to carefully calculate which option is likely to happen. I am not the author of this scenario, [Andrey] Piontnkovskiy, who has described this option in detail in a number of publications and speeches, is.

The idea is that one not so beautiful day or one not so beautiful night, “men in green” appear on the territory of Latgale [in Latvia] and Narva [in Estonia], where they would proclaim people’s republics and immediately hold referendums. And these “men in green” would not even go to Tallinn, they would not go to Riga, they would simply take a territory and say: We are peaceful people, we do not need anything, we are here.

Cerniauskas: The question arises then whether the armed forces of Estonia and Latvia and other NATO units, with the participation of soldiers from other NATO countries, would be able to launch a military action against these so-called breakaway people’s republics?

Illarionov: In the majority of cases, the discussions of this issues in Europe and the United States have shown that there would not be a response. And if there is no response, then it would mean the end of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. And the end of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty would mean the end of NATO as such. In other words, this is public humiliation and public demonstration of the fact that NATO is not able to provide security not only in Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO, not only in Georgia, which is not a member of NATO either, but it is not able to provide security in Estonia and Latvia, which are members of NATO. And it will de facto mean the end of the defense alliance.

Cerniauskas: When do you think Russia could resort to such actions in the Baltic countries?

Illarionov: Currently, the upper limit is the fall of 2016, with a new US President. Within this period, there is a feeling that there is a lot of talk, but no action. And in case of a real military-political crisis, Obama would not be able to give the necessary military orders. Therefore, if it is decided in the Kremlin on the implementation of such a plan, the time for such an order is likely to be by the fall of 2016.

Cerniauskas: There is not much time left…

Illarionov: Yes, I agree with you.

Cerniauskas: “If not Putin, it could be even worse.” There is such an opinion, they say that if the current Russian president is replaced with another one, it would be even worse…

Illarionov: Who, for example? Just let us consider who this person could be. Moreover, we must bear in mind that be that as it may, some formal requirements would have to be ensured. We would need to somehow elect him. Even if through fraud, deceptive maneuvers, but we must somehow elect him. The question arises, who has the potential to be elected even with the help of massive fraud? Who has the potential to replace Putin?

Currently, Putin is popular among some parts of Russian society. He is popular. Who else might have a similar, same, or comparable support to the one Putin has?

Third, who out of such potential candidates would have the ability that Putin has in terms of working with the West, to be a peculiar partner, but nevertheless a partner for them. Who has such a strong willpower, ability to analyze, and aggression — who is this man? Frankly, I do not see such a man. Therefore, if someone draws a picture of some terrible monster, for example, [Igor] Sechin. Can Sechin be elected in Russia? I will tell you for sure — no. Not even through fraud. [Ramsan] Kadyrov — do not make me laugh. Sergey Ivanov can be elected? No, we would not elect him.

There is simply no such individual at this moment that would satisfy these requirements. There are more aggressive candidates, but they do not have the potential to be elected. There are those who are more likely to be elected, but they are not more aggressive. This is the answer to your question whether someone worse could come.

Cerniauskas: You have also mentioned Russia’s goal to destroy NATO. Maybe Russia is showing already now that it does not care about the existence of NATO when it carries out the flights near the air borders of the Baltic countries?

Illarionov: The thing is that NATO is a sleeping giant. It is in a state of incomplete consciousness because of the leadership, first of all in the United States. If another leadership appears, this giant might wake up. It is absolutely rational tactics: how to fight against the giant who is much stronger and more powerful than you, but is currently sleeping. This is a favorable situation to deal with. Because when the giant wakes up, the time for being idle will be over. Russia will have to take care of other things then.

Cerniauskas: Is it possible to wake up the giant?

Illarionov: There already have been such attempts, but he does not wake up. He does not wake up because the brain that controls the center of the giant is in Washington, in the White House, and everything has already been tried there during the past six or more years. He does not wake up under any circumstances. He does not wake up in spite of the chemical weapons in Syria, the civil war with hundreds of thousands dead, the war in Ukraine, the annexation case in Europe, the terror attack that killed 300 people on the plane — he does not wake up. Therefore, an absolutely clear answer has been given: You can act now. Not only can you act, you have to act now.

Cerniauskas: You have mentioned the weaknesses of Latvia and Estonia, what weaknesses does Lithuania, where the Russian minority is not so big, has?

Illarionov: I think that the domestic situation in Lithuania is stable enough. Lithuania has a direct border with Kaliningrad, it has a direct border with Belarus — this is what needs to be considered. But from the point of view of the domestic situation, it seems to me that Lithuania is quite stable, because it does not have a significant minority that would have a negative attitude, either in the past or in the present, toward the existence of the Lithuanian statehood.

Why is it so, we could devote a separate lecture to that, but it is a fact. And this fact is particularly important for the medium-term existence of Lithuanian statehood. As a minimum, if not more. Therefore, Lithuania is well protected in this sense. But what makes the position of Lithuania particularly valuable is that it has not forgotten the years 1940 and 1944, 1939. This memory has not disappeared.

On the one hand, there is a sober understanding of the threats existing in principle, but there is no fear about what can happen here and now. This, perhaps, makes Lithuania different from its nearest neighbors, where there is an understanding of the threats, but there is a much greater level of fear, and much less stable domestic situation because of the aforementioned reasons.

(* According to Andrey Illarionov’s theory, the current Russian regime rests on two “legs”: the “siloviki” (primarily security agencies) and the “syslibs” (systemic liberals, economists who make up the economic foundation of Putin’s political regime.) And the system, according to Illarionov, works thanks to this symbiosis, tandem.)

[hr]Source: Delfi website, Vilnius, in Lithuanian 16 January 2015. Featured image: © DELFI (Š.Mažeikos)


Edited by: Alya Shandra
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