The Russian leadership believes the country is permanently at war and pursues imperial and expansionist policies, the Russian independent media writes. Russian journalists also say Putin’s plan to restore “Great Russia” seeks to capture Ukraine through armed force and Belarus by forcing a unification.
MEDUZA: “Imperial ambitions are now official state policy: Russia ends nowhere”
A few days before the Russian invasion, sociologist Grigory Yudin predicted how the war would unfold. Meduza has interviewed the expert about the outcome of the war.
MEDUZA: There’s a widespread view about contemporary Russian politics that says war is an endless process for Putin, and Putin himself seemed to confirm the idea in his recent Federal Assembly address: He said nothing about how Russia will win and what will happen after that. Do you think that Putin’s plan is really eternal war?
YUDIN: Yes, of course, the war is now forever. It has no goals that can be achieved and lead to its end. It continues simply because [in Putin’s imagination], they are enemies and they want to kill us, and we want to kill them. For Putin, it’s an existential clash with an enemy set on destroying him. There should be no illusions: while Putin is in the Kremlin, the war will not end. It will only expand. The size of the Russian army is increasing rapidly, the economy is reorienting toward guns, and education is turning into a propaganda tool and war preparation. They’re preparing the country for a long and difficult war.
MEDUZA: And then it’s obviously impossible for Putin to win?
YUDIN: It’s absolutely impossible. No one has set any goal [for the war] or offered any definition of victory.
MEDUZA: So, can we consider the point to be the preservation of Vladimir Putin’s authority?
YUDIN: They’re almost the same thing. He thinks of his rule as constant war. Putin and the people who surround him told us long ago that there’s a war against us. Some preferred not to mark their words, but they seriously think that they’ve been at war for a long time. It’s just that now this war has entered such an aggressive phase, and there’s obviously no exit. War itself is normal, in their worldview. Stop thinking that peace is the natural state, and you’ll see the situation through their eyes. As the governor of Khanty-Mansi [Natalya Komarova] said, “War is a friend.”
MEDUZA: You’ve said more than once that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine. What exactly do you anticipate? Moldova, the Baltic states, a self-destructive war with the U.S.?
YUDIN: His worldview sees no borders. This formula has become a practically official line: Russia ends nowhere. This is the standard definition of an empire because an empire recognizes no borders. It’s a formula that has become official state policy: Russia ends nowhere. (In 2016, Putin organized a little geography quiz for gifted children. During the quiz, Putin asked a nine-year-old how far do Russia’s borders reach. “Russia’s border is the Bering Strait, with the United States”, the schoolboy tried to answer. Putin interrupted him and answered himself: “Russia’s border ends nowhere”). This is the standard definition of the empire, because empires know no borders.
In Europe, the first borders were recognized in 1648, with the coming into force of the Westphalia system, which gradually put an end to the age of empires. The concept of a new border between countries started to take shape: “We are on this side of the border, and you are on the other side”. Empires are oblivious to this notion: “Our borders end as far as we’ve managed to expand – to the point where our armies reach. And when we reach you, it’s no longer be your territory, it will be ours”.
This logic accepts no borders, and it’s no coincidence that we hear Russian officials speak about recognizing the legitimate borders of other states. At best, they can refer to the existence of a “certain West”, unknown to us. It isn’t entirely uncharted territory, but it’s harder to conquer. Obviously, the West is perceived in the ideological interpretation inherited from the USSR.
I’ll remind everyone of [Putin’s] ultimatum [to the U.S. and NATO] in December of 2021 — it’s crystal clear, it says in plain text that all of Eastern Europe is Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence. How that will be worked out, whether it means a formal loss of sovereignty or not, what difference does it make? And this zone without a doubt includes East Germany, just because Putin has personal memories of it. It’s really hard for me to imagine that he truly thinks of that territory as not his. Putin definitely intends to restore the Warsaw Pact zone [the former Eastern Bloc countries under Soviet influence].
I often hear, “It’s irrational. It’s senseless. There’s no possibility of this happening!” Not long ago, people said exactly the same thing about Ukraine. They said the same thing even more recently about Moldova, and now we’re hearing that the leadership of Moldova, Ukraine, and the U.S. believe that Moldova is in grave danger. We’ve already seen that Moldova was figured into the plans of the current military operation; it just hasn’t gotten there yet.
Russia’s general strategy is something like this: let’s bite off a piece, then that piece will be recognized as legitimate, and in the next phase, on the basis of that recognition, we can take something else.
[In this strategy’s logic,] we’ll bite off, roughly, eastern Ukraine, with the help of some kind of truce. Soon, we’ll start to hear voices from Europe, saying, “Well, it was their land, after all. Everyone agreed, it’s fine.” Well, wait a minute. If it’s “their” land — Russian land — because people there speak Russian, then what about eastern Estonia? You might say, “But Estonia is in NATO!” But will NATO fight for Estonia? Putin is absolutely sure that if the durability of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty [the article ensuring collective defense] is tested at the right moment, NATO will fall apart. Simply because “they know they’ve taken a territory “that is not theirs”, and if so, when facing a more serious threat, they will get scared and stand down”.
To be clear, I don’t see what I’m talking about as the likeliest possibility. I’m describing Putin’s strategy, but Putin doesn’t rule the world. He’ll get as much as he’s allowed to get. But a scenario like that isn’t impossible to imagine. It doesn’t contain any unconceivable premise. I’m talking about things that are very likely to happen.
DOSSIER: In 2021, the Kremlin was planning to occupy not just Ukraine, but also Belarus, although progressively
The Dossier Center has investigated the Kremlin’s strategy to annex Belarus, elaborated by the presidential administration jointly with the Russian special services, the SVR, FSB, GRU and the Armed Forces General Staff.
The Kremlin was going to bring Belarusian legislation in line with the Russian one and restructure the country’s foreign policy to serve Russia’s interests. The Russian Federation would expand its military presence in Belarus, make Belarusian subordinate to the Russian language and provide Russian citizenship to the Belarussian people. These goals were set to be achieved by 2030, over the span of nine years.
A key role in the Kremlin’s plans is played by the Union State, whereby Russia plans to strengthen its military presence in Belarus. For instance, by the end of 2022, the Kremlin was tasked with convincing the Belarusian leadership about the importance of working towards implementing the Union State.
“The Union State poses a threat to the Belarusian people and statehood. It’s not a union of equals – it is a roadmap for the absorption of Belarus by Russia. In the Union State with Russia, Belarus is losing its sovereignty before becoming a passive player. Now, the Union State is a front for Russia to establish control over Belarus”, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya argues.
The document drafted by the Kremlin seems to confirm the hypothesis. The goals of the State Union agreed upon by Putin and Lukashenko are part of the tasks set by the presidential administration.
Apart from harmonizing trade and economic relations, Russia plans to secure control over the military and political sectors in Belarus by 2030. The mission of the Russian secret service includes restricting the influence of “nationalist and pro-Western forces”, revising the Constitution of Belarus to reflect the interests of the Russian Federation, strengthening pro-Russian sentiment among political and military elites and at society level.
Under the “Strategic goals” section, the presidential administration seeks to secure control of Belarus’s information space by the end of this decade. This will be achieved by increasing the number of Russian media outlets in Belarus and amplifying Russia’s media influence at society level. The Kremlin wants to infiltrate political and military elites by introducing “groups of pro-Russian influence”. Additionally, Russia plans to simplify procedures for issuing Russian passports to Belarussian citizens “with a view to creating a layer of Russia speakers interested in integration and a business community oriented towards the Russian market”, the document states.
“Passportization” is one of the Kremlin’s favorite methods of interfering in the domestic politics of foreign countries. “They used this method in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Eastern Ukraine. They are giving Russian passports to the local population to expand their influence. This also provides them with a reason to defend the rights of their citizens. If necessary, they can invoke the rights of Russian citizens to use armed force”, expert Andrei Yegorov explains.
Education is also an instrument the Kremlin wants to use. By 2030, Russia plans to open an examination center in Belarus. Apart from that, the Kremlin wants to open new science and culture centers in Mogilev, Grodno and Vitebsk. Most likely, these will be subordinated to Rossotrudnichestvo, often turning out to be a front for Russian spies and ‘agents of influence’.
Apart from objectives, the document also describes the risks threatening Russia’s plans for Belarus. Therefore, the presidential administration fears Belarus seeking closer ties with NATO and some Allied states, the influence of politicians with nationalist and pro-Western views on Lukashenko, the replacement of Russian anti-Covid vaccines with American and European jabs, as well as the refusal to provide Russian-language teaching in schools.
The source of Dossier’s investigation is confident that the document titled “Strategic Objectives of the Russian Federation concerning Belarus” is truthful and should be approached with utmost seriousness: “We’re talking about creating ‘Great Russia’ – a union state with Ukraine and Belarus”. In turn, Putin has never refrained from openly speaking about “Great Russia”.
This point of view is also supported by the US ambassador to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter. “Russia’s goals with regards to Belarus are the same as with Ukraine. Only in Belarus, it relies on coercion rather than war”, the US official told Yahoo News.
At present, every expert seems to agree that, due to his complicity to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenko has lost the last ounce of independence. The situation was worsened by the fact that the Belarusian president destroyed every pro-European and pro-independence group within the security structures. Resorting to repression, Lukashenko is now forced to rely on forces that share pro-Russian ideology. Consequently, it is getting harder for the Belarusian leader to strike a balance between state sovereignty and cooperation with the Kremlin.