Yuri Felshtinsky is a historian and journalist specializing in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has authored such volumes as ‘Blowing Up Ukraine: The Return of Russian Terror’ and ‘The Threat of World War III,’ published in 2015. He also co-authored ‘Blowing Up Russia’ jointly with Alexander Litvinenko, the former lieutenant-colonel working for the Russian intelligence service who was poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210 in London in 2006. Radio Free Europe’s Georgian Service sat down with Felshtinsky to get his take on Putin’s mindset and what to expect next.
“Russia, Putin, already committed suicide [with this war], they just don’t know it. Just like Hitler started out on his road to suicide on 1st of September in ’39,” Felshtinsky tells us. “When Hitler attacked Poland, he had Italy and Japan supporting him, Hungary too, and the Soviet Union until June 1941. No-one was able to help Poland because the joint attack happened too quickly. And France and Britain simply were not ready to attack Germany. This is not what’s happening now. Russia is basically alone, it has Belarus, of course, which was occupied by Russia in 2021. It has Iran, and it has North Korea.
“But compare this with the help that started to come to Ukraine. Ukraine was not taken by Russia in the way Poland was taken by Germany and the Soviet Union. Ukraine started to fight successfully and help has been coming in military equipment, financial aid, and its refugees being accepted by basically all countries.
“I believe, though, that we might be at the beginning of the Third World War. 24th of February will be written in the next generation of textbooks as the beginning of WW3. Putin leaves us no choice. Europe and the US want to end this war by all means, as quickly as possible, but Ukraine won’t agree to any concessions and Putin doesn’t plan to stop anyway. He lost his army after 10 months of war, but the goals of the Russian foreign policy are still the same. He still plans to take control of Eastern Europe and, in the end, to get into a conflict with NATO. He was hoping he’d get what he wanted through bluff and blackmail, but it didn’t work. So he started a war, and there are no indications that he’s ready to stop it.
In what way would it be beneficial to him to extend the war beyond Ukraine’s borders? If he can’t take on Ukraine, what chance does he have against Europe, the West, NATO?
We’re looking at this war from a Western, rational point of view: We see him losing battles on the ground in Ukraine, we see him losing first one army in Ukraine, then a second army in September, when he announced the mobilization and the 300,000 people, maybe more, whom he wanted to draft, escaped the Russian Federation before he even ended his speech. Now he’s trying to get together a third army. Russia is a huge country; the supply of people is unlimited. The price of human life is very cheap. He will collect this third army, though it will probably take several months.
From the point of view of military victories on the ground, Putin lost this war completely. But from Putin’s point of view, the situation is different, since he’s allowed to destroy Ukraine from the air. And here, since he really doesn’t care how many Russian soldiers he loses in Ukraine, it’s just a matter of time for him before Ukraine is completely destroyed. From his point of view, he’s not able to lose this war, he’s going to win it, because, in the end, he can always use nuclear weapons. From our point of view, he lost. From his point of view, he is just starting to win. They already indicated that they might use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, while military officials at NATO already indicated that since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the US and NATO would not retaliate.
Putin was just in Belarus, and it was not the first discussion between Lukashenko and Putin on nuclear matters: Prior to this trip, Lukashenko visited Moscow and there were some troubling words spoken of cooperation in nuclear projects between Russia and Belarus. If we look at this within the frames of the war, if we take into account that Lukashenko withdrew Belarus from the Non Proliferation Treaty in March; if you take into account that Lukashenko stated a couple of times that Lithuania and Poland want to attack Belarus; if we take into account the nuclear rhetoric we hear from Putin, Patrushev, Shoigu, Lavrov and Medvedev, I think there is a possibility that Russia will move nuclear weapons to Belarus, which is technically speaking an independent state, and will have the ability to fire nuclear weapons from Belarus at wherever they want. Any retaliation would be against Belarus, but since Belarus is a small state, positioned deeply inside Europe, the West would be unlikely to retaliate against them with nuclear weapons, as radiation might spread across the border. This whole thing opens possibilities which I think are reasonable to be afraid of. And I think this is the only reason Putin left Belarus independent, while he tries to annex every other piece of territory, even those territories which he doesn’t control in Ukraine.
Isn’t giving nuclear weapons to Belarus not a danger to Russia itself if Lukashenko is ever threatened? And even in the event of a tactical nuclear strike from Belarus on Ukraine, it could very well affect Belarus’ own territory. Why would Lukashenko accept that?
Lukashenko is not an independent politician. He is not even an independent dictator. He’s in no hurry to commit suicide. But the same was true about Mussolini. And yet he got involved in WW2 and was very quickly hanged.
There are Russian troops in Belarus now. Several agreements were signed over the years between Russia and Belarus in relation to the military activity of Russia there. Russians control the external border of Belarus, have military bases there. Transferring nuclear weapons is why Lukashenko withdrew the country from the Non Proliferation agreement and after stated that he might ask the Russian Government to return the nuclear weapons which were taken from Belarus under the Budapest Memorandum.
We’re not talking about Belarus striking Ukraine. For this, Russia doesn’t need Belarus: Russia could strike Ukraine from Russia, we know this. Russia could strike Ukrainian nuclear power stations with conventional weapons, if it wanted, and cause the same level of damage in terms of radiation. When we talk about why from Belarus, we’re talking about the idea Putin might have in his mind that they will fire from Belarus into countries like Poland and Lithuania with nuclear weapons.
Against NATO member countries?
Precisely. If NATO retaliates against Belarus, that’s fine with Putin- it’s not the Russian Federation and he doesn’t really care. What he cares about is that after this has happened, he will be able to ask the leaders of France, Germany and the United States the same question: Are you ready to continue with this war or are you ready to capitulate?
So far the West has gone out of its way to ensure that this war stays contained within Ukraine’s borders. Your scenario suggests that all these attempts have been futile. So what should their action plan be?
This war would end as soon as NATO decided to engage in it openly. If this happened, there would be a chance to stop the war in Ukraine. It has become clear that the Ukrainian army is so strong they don’t actually need NATO’s ground forces, but they do need offensive weapons. And they will only win this war if they start firing into Moscow, but for this they have to have particular weapons and these weapons come from the West. The idea of the West is not to provoke Putin to escalate – but, indeed, what the West is doing now is provoking Putin to escalate; what the West is doing now is allowing Putin to destroy Ukraine from the air. And if Russia is allowed to do this for the next several months, the Ukrainian army will be alive, but the country will be destroyed entirely. And from Putin’s point of view, he’s going to win this war, because he’s going to ruin this country, and then he’ll move further, probably on to Moldova.
We should watch Belarus because that’s where Putin will try to make the second attempt to take Kyiv from. This is probably going to happen in the first quarter of 2023. This is a territory from which, theoretically speaking, Russia would be able to strike with nuclear weapons. Russia won’t plan to strike with nuclear weapons from the territory of Russia, because this will be suicidal, because then NATO would respond against Russia. If the strike is conducted from Belarus, trust me, no one is going to respond against Russia- the West would do everything to avoid a nuclear war with Russia. Now since speaking about escalations, since day one we have heard from Putin the same phrase: “If you do this or that, you will escalate the level of this war.” And we crossed that line many times. And Putin is not, as we see, using nuclear weapons. I do not really believe there is a particular red line [for Putin] which the West might cross.
Even bombing Moscow wouldn’t be a red line for him?
If this bomb comes from Kyiv, I think it’s within the rules of war. Is Putin going to resort to nuclear war if the Ukrainians were to take down the Ostankino TV center? I doubt it. If he wanted to destroy Ukraine with nuclear weapons, he’d not have lost his army in Ukraine, he’d just have used nuclear weapons against Ukraine from the start.
Will he use nuclear weapons if the Ukrainians really start winning this war? We’ll see. But the problem with this is that if we assume that Putin, when he realizes that he’s losing the war, chooses to use nuclear weapons, then we must allow him to win the war in order to avoid this scenario. It’s a very gray area, and so we take our chance with nuclear weapons, we take our chance with the possibility of nuclear strikes, because we do not honestly have choice, because the only choice which Ukrainians have to avoid is capitulation. And after what’s been happening for the last 10 months, Ukraine is not going to capitulate, even if Russia uses nuclear weapons against it. And then, for countries like France and Germany, the most important part is to avoid war, and if Ukraine is taken completely by Russia, I don’t think they will complain. It would be better for them than what’s happening now. And that’s why you see from time to time publications from respected people like Kissinger, saying that when the Soviet Union existed, and the wealth was divided between West and East, everything was fine; it was a comfortable situation.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe got its independence, those countries knew they would rather die than become part of the Soviet empire again. That’s what Putin miscalculated with Ukraine. That’s what everybody miscalculated with Ukraine. And this is a new reality, and countries like France, Germany, the United States need to face reality and understand that the only way to end this war is to win this war. And thanks to the Ukrainians, we have the ability to win. At this point, Ukraine has the strongest army in Europe. NATO doesn’t have an army like Ukraine’s in Europe. The Ukrainians are ready to fight; the Ukrainians are ready to die. And they have territory to fight in, because even if the Baltic states were ready to fight, they really don’t have territory to do so, and they do not have the population to involve.
It’s a great advantage that we have Ukraine on our side. And all we need to do to keep this war within Ukrainian borders is to give Ukrainians the ability to win this war. Because if they’re not able to win this war, then Europe will lose. Ukraine is the only fighting power in Europe. And if the West somehow allows Ukraine to be taken by Putin, it wouldn’t stop the war. It will expand the war into Moldova. And as soon as they’re done with Moldova, they will expand the war to the Baltic states, then enter Kaliningrad at the German border, and Eastern Europe by that time would be encircled by Russians and will enter under Russian control. That was the plan in February 2022, but this plan was ruined by the Ukrainians. That’s why the West has no choice now.
Of the 2008 war, you write that “it was too complicated for the West to understand. And they did not pay any attention.” Perhaps “didn’t bother to pay attention” would be a more precise description?
Yes, and of course they should have. If sanctions of the level of 2022 had been introduced back in 2014, there would not have been a 2022 invasion. And if sanctions had been introduced against Russia in 2008, there would have been no 2014 annexation of Crimea. All this happened because Putin, like a small child, was testing the waters. And when he realized that he was allowed to go unpunished for the invasion of Georgia in 2008, he knew he might go unpunished for the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. And he was right. The resulting sanctions were minor, and everything stayed the same, and everybody kept smiling at him, eating with him, shaking his hand. So that’s why the invasion of 2022 happened.
And then, suddenly, the waters became too deep.
The waters became too deep.
Interview by Vazha Tavberidze for RFE/RL