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Putin’s Russia: Crimea, Ukraine, and the Death of Alexei Navalny

February 22, 202422:10

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we speak with William Pomeranz, Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. He discusses the anniversaries of Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2022.  Pomeranz also explains what the death of Russian activist Alexei Navalny may mean for the Putin regime, Russia, and the West.


  • This is an unedited transcript

    Hello, I'm John Milewski and this is Wilson Center, now a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. My guest today is Will Pomeranz, director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, and he joins us to discuss a number of things.

    Two are built around anniversaries during this week and 2014, Russia began its invasion of Crimea, leading to its annexation. And then two years ago, in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. And of course, that conflict is ongoing. And we won't ignore the death of Alexey Navalny either. While we have will in the chair. So well, we have plenty to talk about.

    Thank you for joining us.

    So we're looking at this and we talk about these anniversaries. Is it is this one really long conflict that began back in 2014 and just escalated in 2022? Is that a way that we could look at Russia's intentions as it relates to Ukraine?

    Well, we can look at that in terms of the recent history. But I'm an historian by profession, and I can go long into history in terms of Crimea, Ukraine and the relations between these two nations, which has always been subject to tension. And basically Russia has always asserted that Ukrainians are Russians. And that is simply not the case either historically or culturally.

    You know, when we look at the then to now and not going back in all the years that you're historian hat could you could take us back. But if we just go back to 2014 or even 2022, what has happened to Russia in terms of its global standing, its economy, its military resources, its strength, How how much has what it has undertaken against Ukraine depleted the nation?

    Well, initially it was able to annex territory and all great Russian leaders are only are great if they actually add territory to the Russian Federation. And that, again, goes back hundreds of years in terms of the impression of Russia and its demand to be an imperial power. So Russia has always been an imperial power vis a vis the Ukraine, but basically going back to the annexation of Crimea, this was really the first attempt to annex territory of another country.

    and this one against the the this one against the feeling that if borders were in were inviolable and that basically Russia now has violated Ukraine's national integrity, its territorial integrity, and it has engaged in the first land war in Europe since World War two. And so basically this war changes all the expectations of the post-Soviet space.

    Indeed, after this war, I don't think we can even talk about the post-Soviet space as some sort of unified region. I think Russia's invasion of Ukraine has dealt the death blow to post-Soviet and not only in Ukraine, but also in other post-Soviet countries as well. Indeed, several of the former Soviet Union countries have agreed to sanctions against Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia.

    So basically Putin's attempt to add territory has only diminished Russia's capacity to be a world leader and sanctions have had an important part in that diminished diminishment. You know, Will, if you think back to February 23rd of 2022, the day before the invasion was launched, we were all talking about whether he would he or wouldn't he? Right. The troops are up massed on the border for at least a month prior to the invasion.

    And there were questions of would this happen or would it not? Different experts had different opinions, given the historical context that you just provided and with the benefit of 2020 hindsight vision, should we have seen this coming? Was this almost an inevitability, given the history of Russia and the history of Vladimir Putin? I never would say it was inevitable because it was Putin's decision to invade that basically led to this invasion.

    And there were really no other Russian politicians who were advocating for a land war in Ukraine. So this is really Putin's war. And he did give signals that he was going to invade Ukraine. But basically, I think as many people thought, he would not jeopardize all of the advantages and global global interactions that have occurred in Russia since the end of the end of the Cold War.

    And obviously, Putin thought that, you know, Europe and the United States would not respond. And they definitely he definitely thought that Ukraine's army, which had not really been a stellar force over the past few years, was not going to be able to deter him and to defend Ukraine. So I think it was a series of major miscalculations. I mean, basically, if the Russian generals thought that they were going to be in Kiev in two weeks and they were basically picking out their apartments that they were going to occupy.

    And so there was just a hubris of of in this in the series of events. And essentially, Russia did not understand that Ukraine would resist. And Ukraine has put up a valiant resistance about that, about Ukraine. Let's turn our focus to Ukraine. There's been a toll on Russia for obvious reasons, but that's a self-inflicted wound. But Ukraine has suffered even more damage, both physical and mental, in every way imaginable.

    The endurance of Ukraine and its people has been surprising to many and inspiring to most. Can you talk about that, About where Ukraine stands at this moment in the conflict and how much they've endured? Well, they've just endured a huge, massive assault on not only infrastructure, but also its military as well. And Ukraine has basically used the skills that it learned over 30 years of independence to basically decentralize the army and to basically entrust Ukrainians and their military to defend themselves.

    And this is a new development that I think Russia did not anticipate, but the fact that Ukraine has been able to mount such a strong defense and mainly, as I said, a decentralized defense. And that has that is the result of 25 years of decentralization in Ukraine and the result of two revolutions that have furthered the decentralization of Ukraine.

    So I think Russia underestimated the the willingness of Ukrainians to fight and the ability of Ukraine's to basically hold Russia to a standstill. There was certainly a lot of speculation that Russia was either losing the war or would lose the war. But lately we've seen some turns that maybe are tempering some of that optimism on behalf of Ukraine.

    The counter offensive is being largely called a failure. Zelensky made changes to the leadership of the armed forces and then most recently, we see Ukraine, Ukraine losing the city of of DPKO. And with the headline on CNN today, Ukraine's defeat at of of darkens the mood in the West. What about this current turn in momentum? How serious is this and does it have any impact on NATO's and the West's support for Ukraine?

    Well, this defeat is significant, but it is not Stalingrad and it is not a huge victory for the Russian forces. Indeed, we need to see how Russia uses this victory. They have said that they're going to branch out to different towns and villages and so forth, but it's not clear whether they have the manpower to actually basically rearm an army, basically to have an offensive in Ukraine, where Ukraine still has significant forces in the battle.

    So, yes, it has suffered a defeat. But whether Russia is able to take advantage of this defeat, whether it has the manpower, the equipment, the tanks to basically enforce its will on Ukraine is still an open question. However, it is a wake up call, especially to the United States, that Ukraine is still in the battle and that Ukraine needs the weapons of the United States in order to still engage in this fight.

    So, yes, it has been a bad week in terms of the Ukrainian army, but there is still everything to fight for. And I think despite some calls for negotiations in the press or in other places, I think Ukraine understands absolutely what negotiations mean. It means the dismantling of their country. And that happened obviously, several times in history and basically happened in 2015 with the so-called Minsk agreements, which basically required Ukraine to give a veto power over its policies to these four different entities that Russia carved out.

    So Ukraine knows better than anybody what negotiations mean with Russia and I'm sure that it will continue to be wary of any negotiations, especially since it is on the cusp potentially, of being a part of Europe the last two years, if it's taught us nothing else, is that speculation and projections and predictions aren't worth much. It's been a very volatile and unpredictable two years.

    With all of that in mind, I'm sorry to ask you this question, but is can we even begin imagining an endgame, what that might look like, how long it could take? No one, Putin and his generals, that they would be in cave in two weeks. Here we go. Two years later, they weren't the only ones who I think got the timelines wrong.

    What can you tell us now? Well, in terms of how long we should be thinking about this continuing, I think we should think that it will continue for a long time. Years? What's that? When you say a long time, years are potentially years. Yes. Whether America has the stomach to continue to engage in this conflict and support Ukraine is a question now that is being debated in Congress.

    But I think that, again, Ukraine has been heroic. Ukraine has everything to gain and it has everything to lose if it doesn't remain engaged in this battle. So, yes, I think people talk about the endgame and so forth. The endgame is not actually kind of taking back all the territory at once, but making sure that Ukraine continues as a viable country, as a European country, and as a country that is promoting democracy in its own for its own people.

    Let me just shift gears to Alexei Navalny. When I invited you to be a guest for this discussion a week ago or so, he was still alive in prison. And now, of course, things have changed again, without speculating. His widow and others have accused Putin of murder. The United States is leveling new sanctions toward Russia to hold them accountable.

    President Biden has been very explicit in the language he's chosen to use as he accuses Putin of wrongdoing. What do we know at this point, Will? Well, how does this change the calculations within Russia as far as resistance to the Putin regime? Anything else that you can help us to give this some context to what's happened? So clearly, we don't know.

    Even when Navalny died and we don't know what Navalny died from. But I think it is very appropriate to accuse Vladimir Putin of Navalny's murder. And I say that in light of all the attempts to arrest him, the attempts to poison him, the attempt to set to send him to Siberia, and under the most difficult conditions of that, a Russian prison can offer.

    All these things obviously took a toll on Navalny, his health and clearly are Putin. If he did actually, you know, pull the trigger, he was the one who made sure that Navalny would not have a political career. He made sure that he would stay in prison forever. And he used the most vicious instruments to torture Navalny during his prison stay.

    So directly or indirectly, you're comfortable in saying that he is accountable as it as it relates to the opposition and in its future? Is this one of these scenarios where Putin hopes that the death of Navalny is a the further death of any realistic opposition in Russia? Or could this also be a miscalculation? And this creates essentially a martyr effect for Navalny and increase the opposition to Putin?

    Well, I would like to think that the opposition to Putin would increase, but Putin has put in so many conditions and so much legislation that makes it incredibly difficult to protest. And he's basically created new laws such as the undesirable law. He's used treason in order to put opposition people in prison. So you would have to be an incredibly brave person like Navalny if you thought that you could actually engage in political opposition.

    And indeed, there is all I think the question will always be why did Navalny, you know, who had been poisoned but was in the worse cells, feel the need to return to Russia when he knew he waited him was prison sentences and retribution. And so that is, again, part of the bravery of Navalny, because he didn't give up and he wanted to make sure that Russia had a vibrant opposition.

    But unfortunately, that opposition is just not possible in Russia today. And we've seen people laying graves, laying flowers for Navalny and then being arrested and put in the paddy wagon. So, again, it is a system that is built on repression and doesn't allow for opposition. I would like to think that at some point the Russian people will again have the opportunity to express themselves.

    But I fear that as long as Putin stays in power, that will not be the case. Well, you know, there's a part of me well that always is looking for some silver lining to talk about in a discussion like this. And even when it's unrealistic and I don't want to be Pollyannish about this and you paint a bleak picture because that's the reality that we're dealing with.

    So let me ask you this as a closing question. Instead of fishing for some signs of hope, what will you be watching as far as signposts as this thing develops? We mentioned the thought that Russia could use of DEFCON as a launch point for expanding its penetration into other parts of Ukraine. What are the things you'll be watching that will give us a read of how this thing is trending?

    I will be following several issues. One of them is sanctions. Now, the prevailing viewpoint is that sanctions aren't working or don't work. But if you look at the Russian Federation in terms of inflation, in terms of interest rates, in terms of private business, everything is having an impact in Russia. And these sanctions are proving to be much more powerful than a lot of people thought.

    And they will only grow more powerful over time. Indeed, a lot of the post-Soviet nations, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, have decided to enforce the sanctions against Russia. That was not anticipated at the beginning of these sanctions, but that has taken place. To what extent they vigorously enforce sanctions? I don't know. But they have nevertheless decided to enforce the sanctions publicly.

    Against Russia, there has also been a lot of it. A lot of nations have decided to basically enforce sanctions against Russian banks and Russian assets overseas. So these countries include Turkey, Cyprus and several other important several other important countries, including China, which has restricted restricted imports and the import Bank of China in terms of helping Russia evade sanctions.

    So I am looking at how Russia continues to exist and to continue to basically deal with its isolation around the world. Russia thought it was a European power. It's been kicked out of all the European institutions. They won't get a return ticket back to the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and so forth. Russia is more isolated now than it was during the Cold War.

    So I think what I am watching is, I would say the slow degradation of the Russian Federation and I will be looking for when that actually manifests itself in opposition and politics. Well, thanks, Will. A terrific primer. We appreciate all of your insights and your ongoing work. And I want to take this opportunity as a little plug for you and the Kennan Institute.

    Come to Wilson Center Morgan under the programs tab, but find the Kennan Institute because they've always been churning out lots of terrific content that will help you understand this region of the world and this these particular events that are transpiring now, and even more so now. I know that next week will you have a five part video series coming out that will.

    Yes, the anniversary of the war with Ukraine. And so I just want to encourage our viewers and listeners who are interested in this topic to visit Wilson Center dot org, find the Kennedy Institution. There's lots more to learn. Well, thanks very much. Thanks very much, John. My pleasure. We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon.

    Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John Watsky. Thank you for your time and interest.


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