Chris Donnelly served four NATO Secretary Generals as Special Adviser for Central and Eastern Europe. Author of Red Banner – The Soviet Military System in Peace and War, he now directs the UK’s Institute for Statecraft, and before advising the highest level of NATO was director of the Soviet Studies Centre at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
Breitbart News asked him, “What does Putin want, and can he win?”
Breitbart News: With the movement of American troops from Italy to Poland and the Baltic states, is the Ukrainian crisis over?
Donnelly: No. It has just begun. All the states on the periphery of the Russia Federation are now very vulnerable – not just the “Stans” of Central Asia, but also Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and even the Baltic states. And the danger is not simply a classic military one. Just look at the financial and investor markets. Since the Ukraine crisis began, attracting foreign investment by any of these states has become practically impossible. They are now seen as being too much at risk of Russian take-over, which is exactly what the Kremlin wants. This isolation from international markets strengthens Putin’s power over these countries.
Breitbart News: What is Putin’s strategic goal; is it really the recreation of the Soviet Union?
Donnelly: Not as such. But it is the restoration of Russian control over the former Soviet empire, albeit in a new way. Here, language matters. In Russian there is more than one way to translate the word “independence”, that is, of a nation. “Nezavisimyy” is the usual word the dictionary will give you, but in fact it is better understood as “legal independence,” de jure independence. The word that better expresses de facto independence is “samostoyatel’nyy”, a word that literally means the ability for a person or a country to stand on their own two feet. Ukraine and the other countries on Russia’s periphery may well remain “nezavisimyy”, but Putin’s intent is that they should not be “samostoyatel’nyy”, but should be dependent on Russia.
We now know that Moscow has been running a program for years to undermine the de facto independence of her neighbors while maintaining the illusion that they are still free – just as during the Cold War, Hungary, Poland, or any of the Warsaw Pact nations may have been legally independent, but they were in fact under the control of the Kremlin. This is the power that Putin wants Russia to have once again.
Breitbart News: The Western response has been delayed and confused. Why?
Donnelly: The current political leadership in Washington, in London, in the West in general, does not understand Russia, its strategic culture, what it wants, and how it intends to achieve it. During the Cold War with the USSR we developed a whole network of educational and research institutions that produced a community of competent Sovietologists who worked in our governments, academia and intelligence services to inform policy and strategy-making, ensuring that our leaderships had a real, in-depth, historical understanding of the USSR and its leaders. Some of the most famous were George Kennan, the author of the Long Telegram, and Richard Pipes, the leader of President Reagan’s ‘Team B.’ How many people inside government in the US or the Western allies of NATO have even read the Long Telegram, or know that Stalin was responsible for the death of an estimated seven million Ukrainians? Lacking this in-depth understanding, it is easy to misinterpret what is happening in Ukraine today. Much of what has been written and said about the crisis is simply wrong. We need to illuminate the facts, ensure people know the truth, uncover the Kremlin’s lies.
Breitbart News: Is the inadequacy of the West’s response just a function of ignorance of Russia?
Donnelly: No. It’s deeper. We do not understand Putin’s way of war. We don’t even have the right vocabulary to describe it. To our citizens, war is “Saving Private Ryan”. That’s not Putin’s way of war. Russia was a military superpower, but it was also masterful at the indirect, non-kinetic way of war. See the book Unrestricted Warfare authored by two colonels in the Chinese army. This is a superb guide to how to defeat a nation that is militarily much more powerful than you. It lists all the various ways you can undermine a strong Western nation without firing a shot: the use of economics, the NGO sector, sympathetic members of your ethnic diaspora, or space and the cyber domain. Russia has honed this mode of war since the fall of the Soviet Union and used it in Georgia and now Ukraine and its neighboring nations.
Breitbart News: Russia today has an economy the size of California, or the Republic of France. Could they win this war?
Donnelly: Vladimir Putin is a long-term strategic thinker whose goal is to rebuild Russia’s greatness, and he has a natural advantage. It is relatively easy to defeat an adversary who does not have a game plan, even if they are stronger than you. You may have a PhD and an IQ of 160, but if you’ve never played chess before and have never heard of the Fool’s Mate stratagem, a child can defeat you with it in two moves.
Also, you hear the constant refrain, such that “Russia would never do X because it has too much to lose.” This betrays a complete misunderstanding of the difference between the strategic culture of Russia and the culture of our politicians. The winner may quite simply be the side that is more prepared to take losses. That is definitely not us. (Editor’s Note: The estimates for WWII are that the USSR lost 14% of its population – 22 million lives. The figures for the US and UK by comparison are 0.3% of the population and 419,000 dead, and 0.95% of the population and 450,000 killed.)
Breitbart News: What should America and her NATO Allies prepare for?
Donnelly: Yanukovych had placed pro-Russian governors into key positions in regions where there are ethnic Russians. Putin’s recent unequivocal statement that he will invade if force is used in these sovereign Ukrainian territories is not grandstanding. These are not empty threats from a person unwilling to use force. We have been completely outmanoeuvred by Putin. The deployment of 600 troops to NATO-allied nations is not a serious response to the violent redrawing of European borders. 600 troops is less than a token.
Breitbart News: If you were asked to help prepare a truly strategic response by America and her allies, where would you begin?
Donnelly: Firstly, our politicians must be led to understand that this crisis is not about Russia – which hasn’t really changed – but about Ukraine. Putin has been able to achieve what he has achieved because we were unprepared and Kiev was weak. We need to focus on Ukraine. The biggest blow to Moscow’s dream of renewed Russian hegemony in Europe would be to help Ukraine become a unified and well-functioning member of the democratic West. We need to stop talking and provide concrete help, quickly, and on a serious scale. We need to help build a competent and legitimate political elite in Kiev to create a future for all Ukraine’s citizens in which they can enjoy the liberties and opportunities we cherish, but which many of us have come to take for granted.