Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at examples of weapons during his visit to the Central Scientific Research Institute of Precise Mechanical Engineering in Klimovsk, outside of Moscow, on Jan. 20. ©Editor's Note: Pavel Felgenhauer, 63, is a leading independent Russian military analyst and commentator who is known for his publications critical of Russia’s political and military leadership. He is widely quoted by Russian and international news media because of his credibility. The Kyiv Post interviewed him on Jan. 25, following the Kremlin separatists’ strike on Mariupol, the Azov Sea port city of 500,000 residents, in which at least 30 people were killed and more than 100 people injured. His conclusion: Russia's proxy war against Ukraine will last for a long time, but if Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps pressing his conflict with the West, he will lose.
Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.
Q: Does it look like the West and Ukraine have a plan to stop Russia’s war?
Pavel Felgenhauer: “The thing is the war won’t stop soon. It’s a very typical proxy war. Such proxy conflicts can last almost indefinitely like the war in Vietnam, like the war in Afghanistan, like the Middle East conflict. The battlefield is the Donbas. But it’s not the source of the battle. The clashes come from the Russian supply of men and materiel. When the source dies out, the war will end. The Vietnam War ended when the United States got fed up keeping the conflict running. The same in Afghanistan, when the Soviets decided to end it. (This war) depends on how long Russia is willing to fuel this fighting, how long Ukraine is willing to supply men and materiel and how much the West is willing to sustain the war materiels. Such proxy conflicts, unlike a real conflict between states -- when everything goes into the war – could be years ahead of us before it ends.”
Q: Is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aim to destroy Ukraine as an independent state?
PF: “More or less, yes. The Russian strategic objective is to change the regime in Kyiy, to install in Kyiv in such a regime and make constitutional changes to make this regime not integrate into European transatlantic institutions, including the European Union and NATO. Moscow is not interested in the Donbas whatsoever. They don’t care who holds Mariupol.
“The local chiefs of this rebellion have their own agenda as always in such conflicts. They will continue to provoke an escalation. They have been given official guarantees by Putin that Russia will not allow them to be defeated and overrun. That was clear from June and July. The Ukrainian strategy of trying to close the border didn’t make sense because it created a higher probability of Russian invasion, which is what happened in the massacre of Illovaisk and even earlier in Sever Mohyla. (Ukraine’s) volunteer battalions make much more stink on the internet. Regular soldiers are not that vocal. But they suffered sustained losses. It was very stupid to be so extended and get under the Russian flank. Putin’s commitment that ‘we will not allow the defeat of the rebels’ means the rebels can go and go again at Ukrainian forces. If they’re successful, OK. If not, that’s OK, too, because that will bring the Russian forces in. They can’t lose and they will provoke the escalation. There’s no real decision yet in Moscow (about how far to escalate). At present the escalation is limited right now and I hope it that it will be until summer, that the fighting will be limited to units, tank companies, artillery batteries. No air force.”
KP: There are reports that the Ukrainian air force today is striking Russian positions in Novoazovsk. Is this a good idea?
PF: “Ukrainians have their air force, they have not been sending air force into battle because of some losses in the summer fighting. They are relying mostly on artillery and multi-rocket launch systems. Russians have introduced rather a robust anti-aircraft system. There would be losses (if the Ukrainian air force fought). They are most likely keeping their air force back if and when there is going to be a big battle. (National Security and Defense Council head Oleksandr) Turchynov, in parliament was talking about the possibility of a major Russian intervention. That would mean the Russian air force in force.”
KP: What about the prospects of a full-scale Russian invasion?
PF: “There are parties in Moscow, including Defense Minister Sergiy Shoigu, who was agitating for a full invasion on April 23. You can look that up – he said there is a ‘disbalance of forces in the Donbas and we are going in. We’re going to have maneuvers on the border.’ I read it as a go in. Apparently, at the last moment, Putin didn’t give the go-ahead. Putin chickened out. He should have gone to Odesa at that time in April when Brussels said publicly that it would take Russia five days to get to Odesa. Now most likely it could be more costly and not that swift; and there’s no political decision to do that. Putin is cautious and the ‘siloviki’ (Russian secret services) are advocating a more robust intervention. Others say it’s too dangerous and costly.”
KP: What are the chances of Putin changing his mind and going in?
PF: “He is very much reliant on political and economic means, not military. He’s not Napoleon or Genghis Khan, the great invader. He wants to find in Ukraine a Ramzan Kadyrov who became Russia’s proxy in Chechnya. He could have taken over Tblisi (in Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008). But he didn’t. Instead, he found (former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili) who kind of changed Georgia. Ideally Russia would want to find an Ivanishvili for Ukraine, an interlocutor who understands the old (ex-President Leonid) Kuchma policies that would let Ukraine be a Russian dominion, with limited sovereignty but some kind, without Crimea, but constitutional safeguards and power for the Donbass guys to veto any attempt to move Ukraine to the West. Putin would want (Ukraine’s leader) to be controllable.”
KP: Does Putin completely control his Donbas proxies?
PF: "To some extent, yes. But they’re different kind of warlords. The Russian military who is helping them, they don’t like each other. The Donbas warloards are considered scum. They make our professional military sick. They are totally ignorant in military ways. Take this fighting around the Donetsk Airport that lasted almost a half-year. They couldn't agree on a joint force offensive operation.
"I talked to military people, a guy who knows a Russian general who was born in the Donbas and served in the Russian military. He was asked to give advice on these guys. He said: 'They don’t understand the language; didn’t go to military academies.' So these scum are not taken with high regard by the Russian military. There are tensions there…(but Putin’s) objective is not the Donbas. His objective is Kyiv.”
KP: How long could Putin’s proxies in Donbas last without Russian military and financial support?
PF: “The rebellion would crumble rather swiftly. It could take weeks, months, up to a year. But it would be doomed. Donbas on its own cannot provide resources for the continuation of of war at the present level of hostilities. It’s absolutely impossible.”
KP: And if Putin takes over Kyiv, or gets a puppet leader installed in Ukraine, the war will end?
PF: "Russia has one person as a decision-maker in the end. Putin. Most likely he believes Russia can still win this confrontation and is not ready to write it off as a total defeat. That means we will continue.
“Adolf Hitler until 1944 was telling everyone – he was a trench soldier from World War I – that ‘look how many new weapons we are producing, real new wonderful stuff, jet fighters, bombs. With those new weapons of support, we will will prevail on the battlefield.’
“Putin believes that under pressure, Russians will unite and perform miracles like previous generations did, that maybe it’s a good thing that we are under sanctions. We will find our national identity, unite China and India against the West. He’s living in a kind of dream world as Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel once said. Now it’s more of a financial crisis, which right now is beginning to develop into an overall crisis. There are layoffs already happening.”
KP: So Kyiv is the intermediary battle and the war against the West is the ultimate victory to be won by Putin?
PF: “Moscow is ready to negotiate. Negotiations from the Russian point of view have never begun. I recently had a working breakfast with a European ambassador who, by protocol is present at summits when presidents are meeting. When he is present at the top-level talks, Russians all the time want to put a map on the table and carve up Europe, Yalta-style, or Molotov-Ribbentrop style. Russia is waiting for the West to begin talking on substance -- where Vilnius goes, where Lviv goes. In the Russian view, there should be a map and a line on the map. They can’t say so publicly. They would want a secret appendix.
KP: So the West and Ukraine are in for a long war unless they compromise on Ukraine’s independence?
PF: “I believe so; I don’t see right now any amicable or swift way out. I believe that Russia cannot win. If they try, they are totally screwed, in general, in taking on the West like that, pig-headedly. Ukraine is seen by Russia and the media from the imperial capital as important, but not as important as the clash with the West. A head-on clash with the West will destroy Russia in its present form.”