What’s at Stake in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict?

What’s at Stake in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict?
(Andrei Illarionov, December 17, 2021)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Andrei Illarionov is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington. From 2000 to 2005 he was the chief economic adviser of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the president‚Äôs personal representative in the G-8. Dr. Illarionov was the driving force behind the adoption of a 13% flat income tax, the Russia‚Äôs government‚Äôs creation of a Stabilization Fund for windfall oil revenues, reduction in the size of government and the early repayment of Russia‚Äôs foreign debt. At the end of 2005, he resigned from his post as a Presidential Advisor for what he said were three main reasons: the transformation of Russia into a politically non-free country, the capture of the Russian state by the corporation of secret police officers (‚Äúsiloviki‚ÄĚ), and horrific corruption within the Russian leadership. Earlier, in 1992, Dr. Illarionov had served as an Economic Advisor to Russia‚Äôs Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. And from 1993 to 94 he was Chief Economic Advisor to Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin.

Dr. Illarionov has written three books and more than 300 articles on Russian economic and social policies. He received his PhD from St. Petersburg University in 1987.

Transcript

Introduction

Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. I am happy today to welcome back to the Westminster Institute, Dr. Andrei Illarionov, who spoke to us earlier this year on the subject of What Makes Putin Tick? Much of what he said in that fascinating presentation was counterintuitive to many Americans for the simple fact that American analysts do not personally know Vladimir Putin, and Dr. Illarionov knows him very well. I should begin by saying currently he is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington. But from 2000 to 2005, Dr. Illarionov was the chief economic adviser of Russian President Putin and his personal representative in the G-8.

At the end of 2005, Andrei resigned from his post as a Presidential Advisor for what he said were three main reasons: the transformation of Russia into a politically non-free country, the capture of the Russian state by the corporation of secret police officers (‚Äúsiloviki‚ÄĚ), and horrific corruption within the Russian leadership. Earlier, in 1992, Dr. Illarionov had served as an Economic Advisor to Russia‚Äôs Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. And from 1993 to 94 he was Chief Economic Advisor to Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin.

Dr. Illarionov has written three books and hundreds of articles on Russian economic and social policies. He received his PhD from St. Petersburg University in 1987. Today he is going to speak to us on: What’s at Stake in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict? Andrei just recently returned from three weeks in Ukraine. I look forward to your remarks.

Andrei Illarionov:

Thank you, Robert, for the invitation. It is always a pleasure to be with you and discuss issues of mutual interest for us and for our audience. Yes, I spent the last three weeks in Ukraine, and it gives me additional information and feedback for understanding what is going on in Ukraine, in Ukraine-Russia relations, and in Ukraine-U.S. relations, and in the triangle (Ukraine, Russia, and the United States).

With your permission, I will try to touch on the three most important topics that I think are worth discussing, at least to be mentioned right now, that our audience will be familiar with, the most important and even urgent topics in the current political landscape.

Putin’s Strategic View

The first one that we should not forget, and we should remember all the time, is the strategic view of Mr. Putin, the current Russian President and the President for the last essentially twenty-two years, and nobody knows how long he is going to be at this position in the future since he is not going to retire anytime soon, maybe ever.

His strategic approach to Ukraine can be summarized in a very simple formula. He would like to establish full control over this country, which means that he would like to establish that control, political, military, diplomatic, with special services, economic, financial, whatever you can think, that can be achieved either through outright military intervention or through much more sophisticated so-called hybrid instruments. Whatever instruments are available, all of them are good for Mr. Putin, and he is ready to use, and he is happy to use each of these instruments or most of these instruments or all of these instruments at once.

What is really important to remember is he really wants not to grab a piece of Ukrainian territory, [which] some people might think, looking at the 2014 annexation of Crimean Peninsula and Sevastopol or at the ongoing war in Donbas in eastern Ukraine. No. For him, it is just little pieces, little steps in achieving his strategic purpose, [his] strategic goal, to establish full control over the whole of Ukraine.

And for that purpose, he has developed a theory and even a vision for him, which he shared, not only with his entourage but with the general public, of the so-called historic Russia. Last time we touched on this particular topic of historic Russia, [which] he has borrowed from the Russian neo-imperialists and developed to the level of political paradigm and actual policies of the modern Kremlin.

From Putin’s point of view, I would remind what we discussed last time, historic Russia is a territory that was conquered by the Russian Empire by the end of the eighteenth century in Europe, and Putin considers his strategic goal to [be to] expand the territory of the current Russian Federation to the old western borders of the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth century. For those who did not look at the historic map recently, I would remind [them] that the western borders of the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth century would put into the so-called ‘Russian side,’ three Baltic countries, Belarus, [and] Ukraine.

And Mr. Putin was courageous enough to speak about this publicly even back in the year 2012, even in written form in his article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta in January 2012, so he has established that it is his goal. Nine years later, in July 2021, Mr. Putin wrote a new article devoted to the concept that he has developed now in fascinating details, the concept of the so-called ‘one nation’ that would include not only ethnic Russians, but also ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Belarussians.

So, anybody who studied whatever, history, politics, linguistics, ethnic studies, understands very well [that] these are three very different ethnic groups. They are to some extent close because they do belong to the eastern Slavic linguistic group, many of the people who live in this territory belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, [and] people in that territory spent a lot of time together historically under the same political regimes back under the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, they are three different, distinctively different nations, ethnic groups and nations.

For Mr. Putin, it is not [an] acceptable vision. He would like to have all of them, Belarussians and Ukrainians, to be included into Russia, and that is why he called Belarussians, Ukrainians, one-nation with Russians. And he argued in this article in details, attracting different arguments from history, politics, economics. We will not discard them because they are so artificial, so superficial, so fantastic that nobody serious in any field, of economics, politics, history, linguistics, [or] culture would accept those arguments.

But we understand that this article of Mr. Putin is not an academic study that should be checked and approved by the academic community. This is a political study. This is a political paradigm. This is a program of political actions, and he explains, not to the academic community, but to his citizens, citizens of Russia and to the outside world, what are his intentions. It is no surprise that as soon as this article has been published and his been commented on heavily by everyone, saying, oh, come on, this is absolutely ridiculous, all of these statements, and that is not true, that is not correct, and this is a manipulation. It is not so important.

The most important comment came from the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Mr. Shoigu, who has announced that this article has been published in millions of copies and been sent in each military unit of the Russian Army, and every officer and each soldier should study this article because this is a program. This is a political/military program for activities of the Russian military in the foreseeable future.

Once again, we can discuss this article, and actually, not only that article because there was a comment the next day after the appearance of this article. The comment came from Mr. Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, who jokingly suggested that we are not relatives, you were relatively very remote relatives. We are not brothers. We are probably cousins, but very, very remote cousins. And that is why it is probably not necessary for remote cousins to worry about these brotherly relations. It looks like Mr. Putin was quite upset by these comments from [the] Ukrainian President because Mr. Putin thought that probably his article, so well-prepared from his point of view, was not taken as seriously as he had hoped.

And that is why [the] same day in the evening, the very late evening after 10:00 PM, he invited someone, not even a journalist, someone from his personal guard, to read questions that had been prepared on purpose. Answering once again, Mr. Putin reiterated the most important passages from this article that everybody, including the President of Ukraine, would understand the message that he, Mr. Putin, is sending to him. And the message is very clear: Ukrainians and Russians are one nation, Mr. Putin is going to unite these two nations under one political roof, and there are many methods that can be employed to achieve this purpose.

And one of the methods has been mentioned four times, twice in the article and twice in those answers, oral answers of Putin [the] next day. And these methods are very clear. Ukrainians, even millions of Ukrainians, would rise up against [the] corrupt elite of Ukraine, and would overthrow this government, and would establish very special, friendly relations with Russia. And this thesis about the internal uprising of the so-called pro-Russian-thinking Ukrainians has been repeated four times, so that is why it is a very clear program for actions. And this is a very kind of clear, and for the moment, probably the most detailed political program of Mr. Putin toward Ukraine. And he was trying to realize and implement this program definitely over the last eight years through the war that he is waging against Ukraine, not only to grab some pieces of territory, but to establish the full control over the country.

This is the one topic that attracted a lot of attention, first of all, in summer months of this year, but over the last month-and-a-half since October 30th, we are witnessing [an] unprecedented campaign, information campaign, or to put it more correctly, a disinformation campaign, on [the] coming concentration of Russian troops on Ukrainian borders with immediate or almost immediate possibility to invade Ukraine with thousands of Russian troops. Seeing then many newspapers, media outlets, and after that even government officials have stated and have commented on this threat to Ukraine.

And from the very first reports about [the] so-called unusual movement of Russian troops, the discussion moved to concentration of Russian troops, then to concentration of Russian troops that are ready to invade Ukraine, to massive Russian troops that are going to invade Ukraine and occupy half of Ukraine, after that two thirds of Ukraine, after that three quarters of Ukraine with capture of all main cities and with possibility of launching the third world war in Europe, and with maps published by many media [outlets], including Washington Post or Bild [or] some other media [outlets]. [They] even mentioned possible dates of such an invasion like Christmas, Catholic, Western Christian Christmas, December 25th, or late January or early February next year.

So, that was developing very fast in our many government leaders and politicians and international organizations are issuing statements about this preparation of Russian troops to invade Ukraine as though the invasion has already been established as a fact. We have looked into the facts that have been mentioned for that, and we found that, yes, there are some movements of Russian troops, no doubt, but this is a regular usual movement of Russian troops. Russian troops are not staying in the same place.

Over the last eight years when the attention, public attention, is focused on Ukraine, on Russian-Ukrainian war, many military specialists, experts both in regular service and those who retired but who are still involved in the business of monitoring military movements, have seen similar movements all the time through all these eight years. Those movements that we have seen over the last month-and-a-half do not differ much from what we have seen in [the] previous eight years.

Moreover, if we look into the total amount of those troops that have been mentioned in publications, we are shocked by the fact that today, when there is such a huge campaign going on, [a] public campaign in the world, the number of troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border is less than it was two months ago in September 2021, and six, seven months ago in March/April year 2021, when there was a previous accumulation of Russian troops, but there was nothing comparable, there was no campaign comparable to this one.

For example, recently, the so-called intelligence sources are saying that [the] number of Russian troops (‘so-called’) near Ukraine is close to 94,000 troops. It is not a small amount, it is a substantial amount, but in September this year, the number of the troops that were engaged in the military drills, Zapad (it means West) 2021, was 200,000, more than double [the] size of what we have today, but two months ago or two-and-a-half months ago in September, nobody in the world launched such a huge campaign. In March and April 2021, the number of so-called battalion tactical groups, these are some particular units in Russian military forces, was 53 located on the Ukrainian border. Today, it is 40, 13 groups less. It is one fifth or one quarter less than it was six or seven months ago. And once again, in the Spring of this year there was no such a massive campaign on the Western side, attracting attention to the accumulation of Russian troops.

On the other hand, Ukrainian military sources in the Spring were trying to attract [the] attention of the West, of Western countries, of Western leaders to the accumulation of Russian troops, not now. For last 50 days each time when the Ukrainian military leaders have been asked [for] their opinion about the concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, each of them was saying we do not see anything particularly dangerous. Once again, those are military leaders responsible for defense, for intelligence, for security guarantees of [their] own country and they think, yes, we do see some movements, but it is not something that we should worry about.

Who are those military leaders? They are Minister of Defense of Ukraine, Secretary of National Defense and Security, head of staff, head of border security, the former head of Chief Operative Directorate of the Staff of the Ukrainian Military. All of them without exception are saying, yes, we are monitoring the situation, but we do not see anything in particular that would differ substantially from what we have seen before, and what would create a real, immediate danger and threat for our country.

Only after several weeks of public campaigning in the West, in the Western mass media, some of those leaders started to [do] some kind of drifting slightly to the Western point of view, saying, okay, if there is an invasion, an attack from Russia, we would like to have support from the West, we would like to have equipment, armaments, political, diplomatic, and military support. But none of them have said that their intelligence sources say anything about the immediate threat, and this is remarkable.

What is probably most important for us to understand [is] whether those concentration of troops, Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, 94,000, does present a real threat for full-scale attack on Ukraine. [This] would be some kind of basic information that is being studied in military in the first grade of military college, not talking about even military academy, probably it is known widely by the audience. To start attack against an enemy, the traditional sources, military sources, recommend the ratio three-to-one between those who [are] attacking and those who are defending. There should be some kind of majority of those who could hope for some kind of success in attack.

We know, and that has been confirmed, that the number of Russian troops is 94,000, but the Ukrainian military force is comprised of 255,000 troops, plus 200,000 reservists, which are at very high level of alerts, plus 400,000 veterans of this operation in the east of Ukraine that are ready to be mobilized within several hours. It will be [the] second echelon that is supporting the first echelon of military forces, so that is why we are talking about roughly 850,000 troops that are ready to fight, and they are really ready to fight today compared to 2014 when, due to psychological problems, [the] Ukrainian army was not ready to fight, at least initially, and then we can compare with 94,000 Russian troops. Mr. Putin might be – not might be, we know he is very aggressive, and he really wants to establish control over Ukraine, but he is not stupid. To do [a] full-scale attack with such forces against Ukraine that has much more powerful military resources, it sounds quite unconvincing.

We can just look into the historical examples of the Soviet attacks on neighbors in that particular theater. In 1939, in September 1939, when the Soviet Union moved troops into eastern Poland, it was the beginning of the Second World War, when Hitler attacked Poland from the west, and Stalin attacked Poland from the east. The territory that [was] occupied by the Soviet troops in September 1939 had a population of 12 million people, and the Polish army, as we know very well, received [the] order not to fight back against [the] Soviets. What was the size of [the] army [that] invaded eastern Poland? Half a million people, with tanks, artillery, all this equipment. Once again, no resistance, almost no resistance, 12 million people, half a million army. Almost 30 years later in 1968, Warsaw Pact armies of five countries, led by the Soviet Union, occupied Czechoslovakia in [the] famous August 1968 occupation.

Then-Czechoslovakia had [a] population of 15 million people, and the Czechoslovak army received [the] order not to fight back against [the] invasion. How [large] was the attacking force of five countries? Half a million people. We have some kind of basic understanding. When we have a country of [a] population or territory of [a] population [of] 12 to 15 million people, with no army fighting back, the army of invasion comprises half a million people. All those maps that have been published by The Washington Post, by Bild, by Military Times, showing that invading Russian forces should occupy territory of all left bank Ukraine, or eastern Ukraine along the Dnieper river, and sometimes even part of the right bank of Ukraine, with [a] population [of] 22 to 25 million people, which is roughly speaking twice [as] large [as] Poland [was] in 1939, with [the] ready-to-fight Ukrainian army. And we know that it [is] now [the] very qualified military forces of Ukraine, after eight years of war, the 250,000 people in the first echelon, and another 600,000 in the second echelon. And against such an enemy, 94,000 would be enough to attack such a territory, with so many people with such an army that is ready to fight?

It is absolutely inconceivable.

I can continue on and on because we do study each piece of information that appears in the international media on this so-called immediate or almost immediate attack of Putin on Ukraine, and we do not see any confirmation, any realistic confirmation, of this attack. And once again, the most professional and the most responsible commentators on such events [are from the] Ukrainian military, Ukrainian military leaders who are personally responsible for defense of their own country. They are not only interested they are responsible with their lives, not only freedoms but lives, for defense of their own country. None of them are confirming those reports about [an] immediate attack.

So, summing up, I have to say, what are we dealing with? We are dealing with [an] unprecedented disinformation campaign, concerning the potential, so-called immediate attack of the Russian troops on Ukraine, for which we do not have confirmation, and this is a second topic. And the third question [that] would arise immediately [is], first, who organized this campaign? Who pursued this campaign and what is the purpose of this campaign (obviously)?

And to our great surprise, we are seeing that it is not Mr. Putin who launched this campaign. Mr. Putin joined this campaign at some point several weeks after its beginning, and he is trying to exploit this campaign for his own favor, no doubt, and he started even in the last few weeks to move more troops in more actively than it was before, and clearly that his movements are somehow just his participation in this game. Aha! You are going to say that I am going to threaten Ukraine? Okay, I am ready to play this game, and I would support your claims, but even the support of the claims is kind of the very selective and not massive. Nevertheless, Mr. Putin joined this campaign, but he was not an initiator of this campaign.

Who was an initiator of this campaign? An initiator of this campaign, very clearly, the first publication was The Washington Post, second, Politico, third, Foreign Policy, after that, CNN joined, after that, Bloomberg, and so on. Interestingly enough, it is mass media, it is American mass media, and this is a particular American mass media. It is striking. For example, Wall Street Journal did not participate in this campaign. Fox Channel did not participate in this campaign, so that is why it looks like it is a partisan approach to this campaign. And now we need to ask why particular parts of the American mass media are participating in this campaign. What is the purpose? Until [recently], we could [not] produce [a] hypothesis [as to] why it was necessary, but since we have on December 7th the conversation between President of the United States, Joe Biden, and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, the results or potential reason of this campaign became [easier to understand].

[The] two presidents did discuss [the] necessity for Ukraine, Ukrainian authorities and Ukrainian society, to implement [the] Minsk Agreement, [the] same Minsk Agreement that has been proclaimed by the Ukrainian authorities as absolutely unacceptable for Ukraine because [the] Minsk Agreement stipulates that those separatist units in East Donbass would acquire quasi-state status, and would be integrated into the political and legal structure of [the] Ukrainian system, and would participate in the process of taking decisions for Ukraine, especially for orientation of Ukraine in their foreign policy, in their security policy. It means that those separatist regions would acquire a veto right on Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine. That was the proclaimed purpose of Mr. Putin for all these eight years, and that was his hybrid instrument of establishing control over Ukraine, not to allow Ukraine to integrate into European institutions, to the Western institutions, to Euro-Atlantic institutions.

And for that purpose, Putin has created these two separatist regions, Donetsk and Luhansk or ORDLaw, as [the] abbreviation goes, and his purpose of creating this Minsk Agreement that had been signed in 2015, and Ukraine was forced to sign in 2015 under the threat of full-scale invasion that time, was to create a veto instrument block for Western integration of Ukraine. Since then, Ukrainian society made very clear that Ukraine does not want to implement Minsk Agreement because it means the stop sign for civilization choice of [the] Ukrainian people that [they] made during the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014. And this choice has been confirmed many times by Ukrainians over the course of the last eight years. And now, Mr. Putin was trying to find [a] way to force Ukraine to come back to the Minsk Agreement, and to implement this Minsk Agreement, and not to allow Ukraine to become part of Western civilization.

Unfortunately, Mr. Putin found a person who is ready to listen to him, and who is ready to agree with him, and who is ready to help him, and that person is Joe Biden, President of the United States. Mr. Putin has explained to Joe Biden in Geneva, during their meeting on June 16 this year, his desire. Unfortunately, President of the United States has agreed with this proposal of Mr. Putin, accepted it, and since then, [the] administration of President Biden started to work in a way to force Ukraine to implement [the] Minsk Agreement. So, during the December 7th video call between Biden and Putin, both leaders agreed, and there is a joint decision to put pressure on Ukraine in order to implement [the] Minsk Agreement, and to use [the] Minsk Agreement as the only instrument on which so-called peaceful settlement can be achieved.

Since then, the U.S. president has contacted allies within NATO, within [the] European Union, even within the Pacific region, explaining how important [the] Minsk Agreements [are to the region]. After that, he called President Zelensky of Ukraine, forcing him to accept [the] Minsk Agreement as a result of actually the kind of the whole foods formats, almost everybody or everybody agreed on pressing Ukraine to accept the Minsk Agreement. Moreover, after the December 7th video call between President Biden and President Putin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan gave a press briefing, explaining to [the] general public what has been discussed during this video call. And Mr. Sullivan has said that now the position of [the] U.S. administration is to provide, to care, to care about [the] security of Russia.

Let us just think a little bit. Mr. Sullivan was not talking about [the] security of Ukraine, providing security for Ukraine, he was talking about [the] security of Russia, meaning security of Putin’s Russia, security of Putin’s regime that is [an] aggressor, that attacked Georgia and occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory, attacked Ukraine and occupies 12.5 percent of Ukrainian territory, and now the U.S. administration is taking responsibility for thinking and caring about [the] security of [the] aggressor. I cannot recall any single case in the U.S. history that any U.S. president or any U.S. administration would care about security of [the] aggressor, but now, according to Mr. Sullivan, that is exactly the business of the current administration.

And since after that it [was] announced just after this video call, [the] U.S. administration announced that $200 million dollars [in] military assistance that was scheduled for Ukraine has been stopped and was not delivered. After this conversation, it [was] made public that Ukraine would not become [a] member of NATO [for] at least for 10 years, which is [a] clear detour from the position of [the] American administration or any NATO countries, that Ukraine would become [a] member of NATO. Now, for the first time it appears this period at least for 10 years Ukraine would not become a member of NATO.

We see that just right after that, in the defense budget draft, all sanctions that had been put in the draft, sanctions against Russia, have been removed. It was sanctions against 35 leaders of Putin’s entourage responsible for aggressive and corrupt behavior, it is sanctions against Nord Stream 2, and it is sanctions against the Russian debt. All of them happened just exactly right after the video call between Biden and Putin.

After that, [the] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a special statement, explaining what kind of security guarantees Mr. Putin is seeking to get from Mr. Biden. It looks like this is something that has been discussed during this video call, and they think very openly the demands from Mr. Putin, Ukraine [will] not [become] a member of NATO, Ukraine is not provided with map [to NATO accession], Western countries [will] not provide armaments to Ukraine, they do not provide training missions, they do not place Western military on the Ukrainian soil, and so on.

Essentially, it means creating new dividing lines in Europe with a new sphere of influence of Putin in Europe. That is [what it] looks like [has] been given a green light from the American President. And on the other side of the dividing line are two countries, at least two countries at the moment, Ukraine and Belarus. And this is [the] latest and the most worrisome developments in international relations, in the triangle [of] Washington, Kiev, and Moscow.

Robert R. Reilly:

So, Andrei, let me ask you, what is the interest of The Washington Post and CNN in beginning this, what you call a disinformation campaign?

Andrei Illarionov:

I do not know, but it is rather hard not to see these coordinated actions of this media that published materials about these military movements, about the threat [at] a time [when] nobody else in the world, no other media, were able to detect anything, which all of a sudden became known and visible for those media.

Robert R. Reilly:

But let me say, since then the intelligence chief of Ukraine has said that their assessment of the purported Russian plans for an invasion in January are very close to the U.S. intelligence assessments, that they both agree on this. Let me make that point. Second of all, another Ukrainian, I am trying to remember whether he is an intelligence or military official, said that Russia has come close to the encirclement of Ukraine because of the buildup of troops, purportedly some 34,000 in Crimea, and also the fact that Russian troops have not left Belarus, so they are to the north, they are to the south, and they are to the east, creating a very dire strategic situation for Ukraine. In addition to which, on your formula of three-to-one for an invasion force, this is my third point, Russia enjoys advantages that [do] not fit within that formula; number one, complete air superiority, and number two, long-range artillery, things that Ukraine does not have, so that if, well, should they choose to strike, it could be a devastating and fairly quick. At least that is some people’s assessment. Let me stop with those three points and get your reaction.

Andrei Illarionov:

I think those points demonstrate that really you are not convinced with what I said.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, no it is just that I am telling you what is out in the [press].

Andrei Illarionov:

Just to clarify some details, okay. All of them are valid points and we need to look [at] each of them one by one. First of all, [there is] the intelligence chief who visited the United States and who gave [an] interview to Military Times here, and who provided Military Times with some information about the results of intelligence [gathering, which] they published [in the] Military Times on November 21st. What is interesting? First of all, this is a very unusual intelligence chief that has been appointed [to] this position very recently, and his position has never been corroborated by any other military leaders of Ukraine, [not] even by the own Minister of Defense who visited the United States at the same time and who gave [a] very different perspective. They were both together here in the United States.

Second, the data that he has provided, [the data that] has been published by [the] Military Times on the sizes of Russian troops exactly, shows that the number of the so-called battalion tactical groups now, or at least at the end of November, was less than in September. In November it was 40, in September it was 51, in April it was 53, so even that information does not support the claim that today the number of Russian troops is larger than it was two months ago or six months ago.

Next point: the map that he has provided [to] the Military Times, and that has been published by Military Times, has shown that one of the main arrows of attack [is] encircling Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine with a population of more than one million people, maybe one-and-a-half million people, reaching Poltava and reaching the Dnieper River, and occupying substantial chunk of the left bank territory of Ukraine, so these arrows that show this attack, encircling Kharkiv, occupation of Poltava, and reaching the Dnieper River, the [number of] troops marked on this map as ‘8 BTG,’ meaning battalion tactical groups, the size of each BTG is between 300 and 600 military personnel, so in the worst case scenario, this whole group is not more than 5,000 people. Anyone who is remotely aware [of] military tactics and operations understands that 5,000 people is absolutely not enough for such an operation, so that is why this is a faked map.

Maybe the map is very nice, interesting, and attractive, but the information that is shown on this map confirms that it is fake, it is impossible to achieve. Remember how [many] forces were necessary to attack and occupy eastern Poland, half a million, Czechoslovakia, half of a million. 5,000 people for the territory that is larger than eastern Poland and Czechoslovakia, with [its] army fighting and ready to fight, it is just impossible.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, Andrei, let me ask you this. Whether or not Putin engendered this crisis, he is certainly taking advantage of it, and he has gained a great deal of political leverage from it in the expectation that he might actually move militarily. Now, what has he said as a result of this leverage that at least that perception has given him even if the facts on the ground show that he is not prepared to do that?

Well, he has said to NATO leaders and to President Biden, we need to negotiate, we need to sit down together to achieve these guarantees of Russian security, that Ukraine as you mentioned will not be a NATO member, and that you will not put military equipment up against our borders. That is his objective. It is not far from what he said in his July essay, so he at least is hoping to be the beneficiary of this perceived threat, and that it will pressure NATO leaders and Biden to do this.

Now, he is even ratcheting up the pressure. As you know, he threatened the deployment of intermediate nuclear forces in Europe and says that unless these guarantees are achieved and these negotiations begin, he will have no alternative but to move militarily, so he certainly is making threats. He is certainly trying to gain his political objective through the perceived threat and by increasing the threat.

Andrei Illarionov:

He is trying to get something with so-called tough diplomacy, [something] he cannot achieve as a result of military conquest. He understands that he does not have enough forces to occupy Ukraine or to defeat Ukraine at least in the way that he would like to get it, so that is why I see he [is] creating these threats and he is trying to use these threats against NATO leaders, as you said, or Biden or whoever else, not against Ukraine, because Ukrainians know very well the quality of Russian forces, as well they know the quality of Ukrainian forces. They are more or less equal, and the eight year-long war has shown very clearly that the two armies [are] essentially very close to each other by quality of personnel, so that is why there will be no easy work for Putin [getting] into Ukraine.

And it might be in some sense Ukrainian forces may be slightly better than the Russian forces for the moment, so that is why Putin understands very well, and that is why he is not going to risk any serious attack against Ukraine, but he sees that the weakness of the so-called Western front is not in [the] Ukrainian military but in the minds of Western leaders, and that is why he is trying to use these threats not so much against Ukrainians, but again the Western leaders. And he is trying to get concessions from them in the way of non-membership in NATO for Ukraine, on non-placement of armaments, equipment, [etc.] on Ukrainian territory, and in some other places, so that is his purpose and that is his game.

Robert R. Reilly:

Can I play the devil’s advocate here for a moment?

Andrei Illarionov:

Please.

Robert R. Reilly:

Let us forget Vladimir Putin. We could say there was a czar, some other autocrat, or a Secretary General of the Communist Party. Russia, historically, has had to rely on defense in depth to protect itself. Napoleon tried, Hitler tried, because of the vast territory of the empire of the Soviet Union Soviet forces were able to retreat for hundreds and hundreds of miles, regroup, and then come back against the invader. Wouldn’t any Russian leader looking at the situation think that if Ukraine is invited into a military alliance that is brought to its border, its southwestern border, that halves the distance to Moscow from, say, the borders of Poland, the next NATO military member, that they would be alarmed because of the strategic situation in which it would put them, so that this worry is not specific to Vladimir Putin. It would be a worry shared by whoever was ruling Russia.

Andrei Illarionov:

No.

Robert R. Reilly:

No? Okay, good. Please respond to that.

Andrei Illarionov:

No, that was in the past in history. Today is a different world. Yes, in the past, armies of different emperors, kings, shahs, sultans, moved in all directions. Now, there is a possibility for the peaceful existence of all nations, that it is not necessary to fight, that it is not necessary to wage wars. Moreover, if Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, why [is it that] Russia could not become a member of NATO?

Robert R. Reilly:

It has never been invited.

Andrei Illarionov:

Mr. Putin said in the year 2000, and he continued several times, in year 2001, that he sees Russia as a NATO member, so that is why, yes, today, Russia is not ready for NATO membership. Probably tomorrow Russia will not be ready for NATO membership, but the day after tomorrow or later, Russia could become a NATO member, and that is why Russia, and Ukraine, and Belarus would be respected members of [the] NATO alliance, and that is why none of them would pose any threat to each other.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, that is looking very far into the future. I cannot [look that far into the future.]

Andrei Illarionov:

But it could [have] happened even [just] a few years ago if that particular evolution of events, political, diplomatic, and military events [had] happened in the early 2000s.

Robert R. Reilly:

Yeah, that was a missed opportunity, I think.

Andrei Illarionov:

Correct.

Robert R. Reilly:

But I cannot end without asking you about your recent experiences of three weeks in Ukraine. What did you experience there, and what apprehensions were expressed on the part of Ukrainians to you?

Andrei Illarionov:

Everybody who I met and just who was talking everywhere, everybody is ready to fight. Nobody is going to give up, and everybody is saying that there will be no easy work for Putin or for Putin’s troops if Putin [does] decide to attack. It is such a united approach of the whole society that it is hard to miss it, and Mr. Putin knows it, and it is another reason why he would not attack Ukraine, unlike [the way] it was in 2014 [when] nobody expected this attack, and nobody was ready to fight back Russian troops invading Ukraine. So, today’s Ukraine is a very different country.

Nobody is going to falter, and nobody is going to retreat, everybody is going to fight, and that is the most important message from Ukraine, so the mood in Ukraine, in Kiev is very different from the mood in Washington or Berlin or Paris. Kiev in Ukraine is ready to fight for its independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, for freedom, and for their Western Euro-Atlantic choice of evolution, for the possibility to be a part of Western civilization.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, they must feel under threat because they have been on high alert, the military forces have been on high alert.

Andrei Illarionov:

Yeah, and nevertheless, they are [on] high alert, they are ready for that, and they are not going to give up.

Robert R. Reilly:

How far has Ukraine gotten in cleaning up the economic corruption in the country?

Andrei Illarionov:

No, it is a long prospect.

Robert R. Reilly:

Still a long way to go?

Andrei Illarionov:

No, it is a long way to go. It is known that no country could do it in a short period of time.

Robert R. Reilly:

Yeah. How about the general level of living? It is amazing that Putin in here claims that the GDP [per capita] is $4,000 dollars.

Andrei Illarionov:

He is using [the] exchange rate. By PPP it will be $12,000. It is still not too high.

Robert R. Reilly:

Yeah.

Andrei Illarionov:

But it is not so bad, yes. It [was] kind of $12,000 in Russia. It is now probably $20,000, so in Russia it is higher because Russia has oil, gas, a lot of materials.

Robert R. Reilly:

Yeah.

Andrei Illarionov:

And Russia was enjoying economic growth for the whole decade and doubled its GDP [per capita]. Ukraine did not have such economic growth over the last 30 years, so that is why, yes, Ukraine is not so rich in terms of GDP per capita and private consumption per capita. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to say that it just kind of absolutely…

Robert R. Reilly:

Destitute.

Andrei Illarionov:

Yes, no. [There] is a long to do in Ukraine in terms of economic reforms, in terms of establishing conditions for fast economic growth, sustained economic growth, yes, but just it is not correct to say that it is just really a country in poverty, in absolute poverty. It is not true.

Robert R. Reilly:

With you as an economist, Andrei, one part of Putin’s article you must have enjoyed most was his claim that had Ukraine remained in Russia or aligned with Russia, its prosperity would have grown and it would not have been so corrupt as it is today, when it was the Soviet-sponsored leadership that corrupted the place.

Andrei Illarionov:

No, but we know that by the level of corruption, Russia is worse than Ukraine, so that is why if Putin’s approach [was applied], in that case Ukraine would be more corrupted today with Russia.

Robert R. Reilly:

Oh, sure.

Andrei Illarionov:

Definitely.

Robert R. Reilly:

I mean that is what is so fantastical about what he says. Who do you think wrote [it]? I mean that is a 7-8,000-word article. Who do you suppose wrote it?

Andrei Illarionov:

Definitely some people did contribute some facts and materials, and maybe somebody helped to write it, but I have no doubt that substantial portions of this essay [were] written by Putin himself.

Robert R. Reilly:

It is [Putin]?

Andrei Illarionov:

Oh, definitely, at least edited or some kind of [thing]. It is something that is very close to his heart and his mind, and that is why the general idea and maybe composition of the particular topics and particular ideas belong to him. No doubt.

Robert R. Reilly:

What did the Ukrainians tell you about Zelensky’s leadership? What do they think of him?

Andrei Illarionov:

The country is divided right now. There are some people who support Zelensky. It is probably a quarter of [the] population, but three-quarters of population are extremely disappointed with Mr. Zelensky.

Robert R. Reilly:

Do they have someone whom they would support?

Andrei Illarionov:

It depends. When there will be [an] election, they will find someone, but right now it is a very deeply pronounced disappointment. Two-and-a-half years ago when 73 percent of Ukrainians voted for Zelensky, there was an incredible wave of optimism and hope. People genuinely hoped that this young person may be inexperienced, definitely inexperienced politically, but not involved in political schemes or corruption schemes or bureaucratic schemes as they thought then, [and that he] would really bring a new era of – if not prosperity, [then] some kind of cleanliness and honesty, and some kind of coherent behavior. That did not happen. To some extent people claim that it is in some cases even worse than before.

Robert R. Reilly:

He is under control of the kleptocrats?

Andrei Illarionov:

Much worse. It is maybe not so much kleptocracy. Much worse is that he is trying to build [an] authoritarian political regime. His attack on mass media, on press, on opposition, his attacks on basic institutions of a democratic society like parliament or constitutional court are appalling

Robert R. Reilly:

So he has developed an authoritarian streak?

Andrei Illarionov:

He has not yet developed [it], but he is moving in that direction, following closely to [the] experience of Mr. Putin from Russia and Mr. Lukashenko from Belarus, and this is the [greatest] disappointment for those who can see it.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you very much. I want to thank our speaker, Dr. Andrei Illarionov, for joining us today to discuss what the stakes are in the Russian-Ukraine conflict. As I mentioned at the top of the program, I invite our viewers to go to the Westminster website or our YouTube channel and find Andrei’s earlier talk on what makes Putin tick. And I also invite the viewers to take a look at the other offerings we have both on Russia, China, [and] the Middle East. And thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly, the director of Westminster Institute.

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