On February 10, Marina Perevozkina of Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) published an interview with former intelligence officer Leonid Reshetnikov, now director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) headlined “Idea of Minsk Agreements was Born in Finland.” It is a fascinating expose of the role some American scholars of Russia played in the confidential preludes to the Minsk talks but ultimately says more about how Soviet and later Russian intelligence and research about Ukraine have cast a long shadow over the negotiations.
MK traces the line between the US-Russian unofficial, or “Track II,” talks, organized on Boisto Island, Finland, in June 2014 between Americans advocating friendly ties with the Kremlin and Russians collaborating with the Kremlin, and the current Minsk peace process which grew out of the September 9, 2014 Minsk agreement for a ceasefire — honored more in the breach and the subject again of intense negotiations still under way as of this writing.
The Boisto talks’ participants published their manifesto in The Atlantic magazine. They seemed to expect establishment support and perhaps didn’t anticipate much of a backlash in that progressive journal. But a group of academics and think-tank researchers, led by David Kramer, then president of Freedom House — including Michael Weiss, editor-in-chief of The Interpreter — fired off a condemnation of the talks for one obvious reason – no Ukrainians were involved in them, and they favored Russian interests.
The opponents of “Track II” said that instead of finding ways to accommodate Russian aggression and make peace on the Kremlin’s terms, the West should push back and demand that Russia cease its war on Ukraine and cede the Crimean peninsula – and stop aiding militants who had taken over many towns in the Donbass at gunpoint, kidnapping and killing people and causing hundreds of thousands to flee.
Rajon Menon, of the pro-peace faction, then responded in the National Interest by claiming his group was misunderstood, and advocated free speech and intellectual diversity — as if the proponents critical of Boisto in fact hadn’t understood “Track II” all too well, and supported free speech and intellectual freedom themselves — which is why they don’t want Putin taking away these freedoms in Russia or from his neighbors. An article by Ukrainian scholar Alexander Motyl, a consistent critic of Russia’s war, discussing the hypothesis of ceding Crimea and yielding the Donbass to Russia to confront it with the costs of war (while reinforcing security in the main part of Ukraine) was then misleadingly invoked as diversity ostensibly not tolerated by those who opposed accommodation to Russia. The failure to include any Ukrainians whatsoever in the agreement was never substantively addressed; Menon said that the international community discusses China or Iran or North Korea all the time without representatives of those countries present. Yet this comparison could hardly stand with Ukraine: a country with a recognized, democratic leadership that entered a trade agreement with the European Union disliked by Putin (as it undermined his authoritarian rule at home and abroad).
This skirmish was the kind that has increasingly broken out between camps in the US which don’t so much fall into “hawks” or “doves” as they might have in the Vietnam War or late Cold War eras, but into pro-Putin and anti-Putin advocates, with the former insisting that this doesn’t mean they are uncritical of the Russian tyrant but are just realists about stability, and the latter saying they are not “Russophobes” — which is the term Kremlin propagandists prefer for them — but won’t accept a peace founded on oppression and human rights violations.
What’s been less visible is the Russian role in these talks — and their obvious connections to Russian intelligence — obvious at least to savvy observers who understand the backgrounds of the players.
MK’s expose of Reshetnikov’s involvement in preliminary talks illustrates the role of Russian intelligence in the war and draws the line between such positions and the Minsk agreement. Although MK does not mention it, Reshetnikov is also associated with Russian ultrarightists such as Aleksandr Dugin and a reported sponsor of the Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, Russian Orthodox philanthropist and businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, as can be seen from their sharing of the speakers’ platform at the “Moscow, the Third Rome” conference in November 2014.
The Minsk agreement ultimately had the participation of Ukraine — though not initially from the Ukrainian government per se, but from Leonid Kuchma, president of Ukraine from 1994-2005, and long embroiled in the “cassette scandal,” in which he was implicated in the murder of a journalist and other abuses. At later stages -– as today — President Petro Poroshenko was directly involved.
The following are excerpts and a summary of the MK article by The Interpreter:
On the outskirts of Moscow, among the Soviet-era residential buildings, are hidden the concrete boxes of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI). From the looks of it, it is a typical institution of which there are thousands in Moscow. The accidental passerby thinks, “It’s some kind of Horn and Hoof office” [i.e. front operation, as in Ilf and Petrov’s fictitious “Bureau of Horn and Hoof Procurement” in The Golden Calf–The Interpreter.] Actually, RISI is a very complicated institute. Until 2009, it was part of the structure of Russian external intelligence (SVR). Today, its analytical materials are read in the presidential administration, and some are put on the desk of Putin himself. In early January, RISI was at the center of a huge scandal: its former staff person Aleksandr Sytin accused analysts at the institute of being responsible for the “incorrect recommendations” that unleashed the war on Ukraine. The situation was clarified in an exclusive interview by MK of RISI’s director, Leonid Reshetnikov, lieutenant general of the External Intelligence Service (SVR) in reserve, and former head of the SVR’s information and analysis bureau.
MK: Leonid Petrovich, the failure of the Minsk agreements are already obvious to everyone. What next? If there light at the end of the tunnel?
Reshetnikov: The Minsk agreement is now hard to reanimate. That doesn’t mean that attempts to conduct dialogue should be rejected. But it is a very complicated process. Because the aims of the sides absolutely do not coincide, they are aimed simply in different directions. Kiev sees Ukraine only as a unitarian state, and completely rejects the idea of federalization. Poroshenko himself says this outright. The DNR and LNR are for real autonomy of their republics and even independence.
MK: Does that mean that the Minsk agreements from the outset were stillborn and were not worth signing?
Reshetnikov: When there is war, any pause should be a plus. As the achievement of a final goal, the Minsk agreements were stillborn. But as an attempt to find some way out of the situation, they were justified. All the ceasefires, talks, agreements during military actions are part of a military conflict. It has always been the case.
MK: Kiev has nonetheless won more from these agreements? After all, on the eve of the signing, the militia [the Russian-backed separatists–The Interpreter] were already prepared to enter an empty Mariupol. Their offensive was stopped.
Reshetnikov: At first glance, Kiev really did win. But, not knowing the real forces of the militia at that moment, I would not speak so unambiguously. Could the militia, having taken Mariupol, hold it then? It is not ruled out that even the militia at that moment was acting in accordance with its real capabilities.
Here we have to point out that neither MK nor Reshetnikov appear to admit what really happened in Mariupol — and the battle of Ilovaisk, nearby. Russian forces invaded Ukraine throughout August 2014 and attempted to encircle and take Mariupol but were rebuffed not only by the Ukrainian army, but the prospect of having to sustain an actual Russian offensive that would be hard to keep disguising as Russian in origin. The Interpreter reported sightings of Russian armor inside Ukraine for weeks at that time; SkyNews finally broadcast footage on September 3 of Russian tanks outside Mariupol and the world began to be convinced of the problem. Ultimately, at least 300 Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives when Putin’s assurances of a “humanitarian corridor” broke down; unconfirmed reports indicate as many may have been lost among Russian troops, as well as an untold number of local Russian militants.
MK: What do you know about the pre-history of the Minsk talks — at whose initiative were they concluded, who had the idea?
Reshetnikov: Preliminary talks were conducted by two groups of experts — ours and the Americans. The talks took place in Finland, on an island. I know who was on the American side because this same group at first visited us at the institution with these same ideas. We sat down with them for several hours, but would couldn’t come to an agreement. These were representatives from the Kissinger and Carnegie foundations [in fact it was from the Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm — The Interpreter]. The head of the American delegation was headed by Thomas Graham, an aide to Henry Kissinger (former US secretary of state — MK). This same group met with other Russian experts. And with them, they were able to get an agreement.
MK: Who was in Finland from the Russian side?
Reshetnikov: As far as I know, these were experts related to the Russian Council on International Affairs (RSMD) which is headed by Igor Ivanov, the ex-foreign minister. There, in Finland, according to my information, in fact the idea of the Minsk agreements was born.
Ivanov himself was not in the Boisto talks — nor was Reshetnikov or anyone from RISI, his institute. His insights come from his long tenure in foreign intelligence, which was the field of one of the Boisto participants, the four-star general Vyacheslav Trubnikov, an ambassador and board member of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), who was director of the the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service from 1996-2000 — in other words, Reshetnikov’s boss during some years of his own tenure in foreign intelligence (1976-2009).
— Chappatte Cartoons (@PatChappatte) February 9, 2015
MK: Then why couldn’t you come to a common agreement with these Americans?
Reshetnikov: Their position was as follows: we must completely stop helping Donetsk and Lugansk which must be an indivisible part of Ukraine. These regions would be guaranteed the use of the Russian language and given some sort of economic preferences in a decentralization plan for economic activity in Ukraine. We believed, however, that this was a question of an insurrection on a large part of the population of these regions in the east of Ukraine who did not want to live within Ukraine. And in drafting agreements, we have to take into account the interests of this population. People do not want to live within Ukraine, and therefore they took up arms. Yes, there are some volunteers from Russia, but they could not do anything without the support of the local population. This insurgent population must be guarantees compliance with their rights. And the Americans don’t want to do that. Therefore we couldn’t reach an agreement with them.
MK: And others could…
Reshetnikov: You see, it doesn’t work. What is proposed under the Minsk agreements? Donetsk and Lugansk — this is an ordinary territory of Ukraine. What will this lead to? To several million refugees leaving there. And where will they go? To Russia. A million have already left. Plus, all those who took up arms, with their relatives and friends. And the rest, as Nalivaychenko said, will have to go through filtration camps. We are leaving the population of these regions under total control of the Kiev government that is unfriendly to them, to put it mildly. No self-respecting country can conclude such agreements.
MK: This agreement could become the first stage in achieving real peace accords.
Reshetnikov: This agreement became the basis and on it, everything else must be built. As Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov said, Crimea is ours, and Donetsk and Lugansk must remain within Ukraine. Must, let us say, but on what terms? What do we guarantee this population in order to protect it from repression, from persecution? We saw all this on the example of Kosovo, after all. I worked for 16 years in the Balkans. I was in Kosovo when no one even heard of it. Two hundred thousand Serbs were driven out of Kosovo, and how many people killed? The same is planned to be done here. It looks like the very same plan. Only Kosovo was further away from us. I am far from the thought that there shouldn’t be any agreements, that we should only go ahead with unsheathed sword. This is the street position. Contacts are needed, agreement is needed – at least about the exchange of POWs, and to reduce the losses among the civilian population.
Reshetnikov’s invocation of a “Russian street” like the “Arab street” is risible, as the “Novorossiya” rallies in Russia have never drawn more than a few thousand people all year, contrasting with peace rallies ten and twenty times as large. And his characterization of the Balkan wars is also entirely skewed, as Kosovars did not have language or association rights during and after Tito’s reign when the Soviet KGB -– in the person of Reshetnikov — was helping to suppress minorities, and later when hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were arrested or persecuted and then several thousands killed during the war.
The Balkan wars don’t make for good parallels with the war in Ukraine for a number of reasons, but aside from that there is the question consistently misrepresented by Russia and still intensely debated even by those who identify the clear Russian responsibility for the war. Assessments of the “insurrection” range from “entirely Russian-instigated and staffed” to “entirely indigenous to Donbass” to “both Russian-Federation Russians and ethnic Russians/Russian-speakers in Donbass.”
While it’s part of the official Russian position of their “hybrid war” to maintain that the “insurrection” is a local problem and a civil war, there is ample evidence to show that the violence was planned, instigated and maintained by Russia. When Reshetnikov says that the “volunteers” (who include draftees pressured into contracts) “could not do anything” without the local population, it’s actually the opposite, since locals never staged any uprisings or even mass demonstrations until Russia instigated them starting with the seizure of Crimea in February 2014 and violent takeover of sections of the Russian-Ukrainian border and hundreds of administrative buildings in towns of the Donbass. Debates continue on just what percentage of the components of the insurgency are local and which are from Russia, but it is not accurate to say it is entirely one or the other.
Russian government estimates of refugees from Ukraine have been consistently exaggerated but the large quantities are real enough; what’s uncertain is how many might now return if a peace agreement holds. Reshetnikov’s claim that IDPs or refugees must pass through “filtration camps” is another staple of Russian disinformation as there are no detention centers or vetting processes, as implied, for displaced persons inside Ukraine.
Reshetnikov also invokes displaced persons inside Ukraine — although in some cases the dramatic preferences of people has been stark, as recently when buses were supplied to people fleeing shelling in Debaltsevo, and 766 chose to go to Ukrainian-held Slavyansk and about 40 opted for rebel-held Donetsk. Polls also indicate that people do not want to separate from Ukraine, where economic conditions have been better, to join Russia, where they have suffered in rural areas more in recent years.
MK goes on to surmise that Kissinger Associates had only one aim — “to stop the militia’s offensive and give Kiev a breather and the opportunity to regroup their forces.” This statement thus actually portrays a group that in fact was seeking a working solution with Russians not involving Ukrainians with a high degree of cooperation with Moscow as some kind of duplicitous war-mongers. It illustrates how accommodation to the Kremlin can never be enough unless it is totally on their terms. Reshetnikov agreed; “The Americans have only one goal: to preserve control over Ukraine, so that it became manageable by them like Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Poland.”
If the Obama administration could be said to have a coherent policy about Ukraine, it has been more about deterrence of Russia through sanctions in the hope that enough pain induced for Putin’s oligarch cronies will cause him to relinquish his grip on Ukraine. But what happens is that Putin maintains that he doesn’t own the separatist movement, continues to prop up the oligarchs (a mutual arrangement), and regularly provides tanks and troops to the separatists anyway.
Europe has become hostage to the idea of “American control over Ukraine,” says Reshetnikov and now there were two groups in the US — “the sane Americans, who include the Kissinger Group, and the insane ones around Obama who are achieving the same purpose but by different means.” Kissinger is more pragmatic and “you can talk to him,” says Reshetnikov.
Most Western analysts accept that the Kremlin is waging a “hybrid war,” i.e. using disinformation, masking and deception. But MK’s interviewer, which as a newspaper may be independent but tends toward support of the government, turns the tables on the West, saying about Kissinger, “I think such a person is more dangerous, because his purpose is to deceive. They’ve been very good at this until now.”
Reshetnikov thinks the Minsk agreement in fact was only something Washington then needed to save face, and Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Reshetnikov sums up American foreign policy in the Soviet propagandistic vein — “Carthage must be destroyed. Qadaffi is killed, Hussein is hanged, and Milosevic died strangely” — as if none of these leaders were mass murderers who were in fact Soviet, and then Russian, allies.
MK then presses Reshetnikov further on the question of the Kissinger group and his own involvement:
MK: So the Minsk agreement were concluded with the help of Kissinger?
Reshetnikov: Yes, the conception which his aides outlined for us is very similar to the Minsk agreements. I think that in Finland, some sort of proposals were worked out that were taken as its foundation. I think that the Americans provided some guarantees, as usual. They always give guarantees. Only nothing was fulfilled later. Yes, it was advantageous to the USA. But, in my view, we didn’t have any other way out. We were not prepared to send our forces into Ukraine. From early 2014, much happened that was spontaneous. All sides barely kept pace with events. This is the way it always happened when there is an uprising of the people. And an uprising of the people of the Donbass is at hand.
MK: But Maidan was an uprising of the people.
Reshetnikov: And Maidan was an uprising of part of the people. But then it was largely an organized uprising. In Donetsk and Lugansk, however, everything was spontaneous. Ukraine was after all created largely artificially — cutting up of various lands and uniting them, starting in 1918. This is not a very big period for history. So that’s why it is splitting now.
MK: And what role did your institute play in this? Your former staffer Sytin is shouting on every corner that RISI is the main instigator of war in Ukraine, and that you gave inaccurate information to the RF leadership.
Reshetnikov: Yes, he has given us good advertising for RISI. This person was fired for complete unsuitability for the job back on October 17, 2014. And suddenly in January, he began to come out with his exposes. He was involved in the Baltics. And we have such a rule, that a person who is not involved in Ukraine does not read the documents on Ukraine. We don’t have a free flow of documents. Sytin simply didn’t read the documents on Ukraine which I signed and which go to the presidential administration. All our papers are anonymous, they go only under the signature of the director. How could he know what was written by whom? He could only hear conversations in the smoke room.
We constantly said that the situation in Ukraine for Russia was worsening. That a reliance on only economic methods of interacting with it were insufficient and would not yield results. The fall of the USSR showed that we failed to appreciate the ideological component, and poorly took into account the work of the West and worked poorly along the lines of soft power. That’s the topic we mainly wrote about.
Reshetnikov said Sytin’s reports were “weak, with no analysis, only reference materials.” He claimed he only wanted pay raises and trips abroad. He then embarks on an entirely dubious take-down of Sytin for which there is no evidence, revealing more about the Kremlin’s own preoccupations and fears — or lies about — fascism in neighboring nations:
His main idea was that we had to end support for the Russian-language population of the Baltics and make friends with the Baltic countries. And for some reason, he was a fan of Nazism. First it was cuff-links with the SS insignia, then he dragged in a bust of Hitler for some reason. To be sure, it was there for only 2 hours, he was forced to remove it. That’s how it all started! Here a man goes around, indistinguishable from the wall, and suddenly brings in a bust of Hitler. He bought an SS uniform somewhere at a market in Tallinn. He dreamt of coming on May 9 in that uniform (we always mark May 9 [Victory Day] at RISI). Even so, he didn’t know a single language, even English. I asked him several times, why don’t you study a Baltic language? ‘I don’t study the languages of undeveloped peoples,’ he said. What could he analyze? Only Russian-language newspapers. We analyzed open sources at the institute. Our staff have the assignment of analyzing the mass of information, and not only what they write for us in Russia.
To put this flame in context, we should note that since his resignation, Sytin has been exposing a lot of the Russian imperialist intrigues against neighbors hatched at RISI and has been interviewed extensively in the Ukrainian and Baltic press. Paul Goble has provided a summary in Ukrainian Scenario in Baltic Countries ‘Impossible,’ Former Kremlin Advisor Says and Russian Think-Tank That Pushed for Invasion of Ukraine Wants Moscow to Overthrow Lukashenka
Judging from the posts on his Facebook page, the documents Sytin did have access to were damning enough, as they revealed the same attitude that shines through in Reshetnikov’s comments — that Ukraine is “not a country.”
Reshetnikov elaborates at length about his basis for understanding Ukraine — his time in the former Yugoslavia — and perhaps more importantly, his birth in Kharkiv during the Soviet era — which “does not have a relationship to Malorossiya,” or “Little Russia,” he claims, using the term by which Ukraine has been known by Russians historically. He also says the territories of the Donbass and Lugansk were “territories of the Don Cossack forces; they up and annexed them to Ukraine. They annexed Odessa. In Kharkiv, Russians were always in first place, Armenians and Jews in second. And only in fourth place were Ukrainians,” says Reshetnikov. Ukrainian scholars — not to mention Kharkiv residents today who support Kiev in large numbers — would have plenty to object to in this version of history.
It’s not just a distorted sense of the Soviet Union’s own oppressive history that hobbles Reshetnikov, however, it’s his viewing of the US through the prism of Soviet ideology.
“America is not a country capable of agreement. They have one purpose, world domination,” he said — as if the US had just seized a chunk of a neighboring country and then invaded it by stealth, instead of Russia, this year. To back up his claim, Reshetnikov took a quote from Obama: “We are a dominating power, we are responsible for the whole world,” he said in Russian.
In fact, what Obama said was something quite different, speaking at a conference about nuclear security in the Middle East.
“It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them.”
The comment in fact caused an uproar at home, as conservatives though Obama was implying that US dominance was a burden. Sen. John McCain then said:
“We are the dominant superpower, and we’re the greatest force for good in the history of this country, and I thank God every day that we are a dominant superpower.”
The remainder of Reshetnikov’s remarks follow the predictable Soviet propaganda touchpoints that remain today — that America ostensibly views Russia as its world rival, not China (a view that is pretty out of date if ever true), and Kissinger himself was responsible for mass kidnappings of leftists in Latin America in Operation Condor, which was a program in the 1970s to challenge communist Soviet influence in Latin America.
The issue of US complicity in these operations is real, as under President Ronald Reagan, technical support and even military aid was provided against some forces fighting leftists, such as to the government of El Salvador and the contras in Nicaragua who battled the Sandinistas. The portrayal of this situation is entirely skewed by Reshetnikov, however, as it leaves out the real fact of communist oppression in the Soviet Union itself for decades, including mass crimes against humanity and takeover of neighboring countries, and the authoritarian regime installed in Cuba — which the right-wing regimes could use as justification for their policies.
This is emblematic of a lot of Soviet-era disinformation which continues to be replicated and amplified today, where disinformation specialists hype the actual sins of the West but remain silent about their own very real crimes. Kremlin propagandists forget to explain that the invasion of Grenada was triggered by the execution of 10 government officials by a hardline faction of a Communist style party. They indignantly raise the more than 30,000 victims of Argentina’s “Dirty Wars” or the more than 3,000 leftists massacred by Pinochet, as conscientious Americans do, yet all the while, hide the fact that one million Afghan civilians were killed by the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan for 10 years during the same period.
The damage done by RISI and the persistent toxicity of the Soviet KGB’s take on the world represented by officials and researchers still in power and still influential — starting with Vladimir Putin himself — seldom are challenged by the Western scholars who undertake to make peace on behalf of Ukraine or even the West. This should have been the starting point and not the end point of the Minsk talks.