The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Novorossiya flags at Moscow rally 2 August 2014. Photo by Elena Gorbacheva.

Moscow Views Donetsk and Luhansk as Surety Against Ukraine Joining NATO, Lukin Says

Staunton, August 31 – Vladimir Lukin, former Russian ambassador to the United States and human rights ombudsman, says that Vladimir Putin will use the amount of force necessary in eastern Ukraine to convince Kyiv that it cannot win and use the ensuing federalization of Ukraine as a means of blocking that country’s joining NATO.

Lukin told Marat Gelman
, a Russian commentator, that Moscow will then insist on the federalization so that in any referendum on joining the Western alliance, each region would have the chance to vote separately, that Donetsk and Luhansk would vote against, and that they could thus end Ukraine’s existence in its current borders if Kyiv went ahead.

“No one in the Kremlin needs Donetsk, Luhansk or Novorossiya” for itself, Lukin says. “To get the Donbass and lose Ukraine would be a defeat for the Kremlin.” Indeed, in that event, “it would have been better not to have begun” all this. And consequently, Moscow will introduce just enough force to force Kyiv to negotiate on Russia’s terms.

Asked how anyone in Moscow could think that Russia has not lost Ukraine given the current level of hatred, Lukin responded by asking a series of rhetorical questions: “And how did the French come to terms with the English after the 100 Years War? And how did the Russians with the Germans?”

People in Moscow, he insists, are “thinking in large blocks of time.” What seems impossible now may seem natural in 50 years. Moreover, he continues, no one in Moscow is worried about the constitution. “What constitution? No one intends to look at a piece of paper when history is being made.”

Asked why Moscow has dispatched its own forces into Ukraine, Lukin says that people need to “forget about” Donetsk and Luhansk. “The task is to explain to Poroshenko that he cannot win. Ever.” And Russia will introduce forces sufficient to force him or his successors whom Moscow may be able to install to recognize that reality.

Moscow will leave Donetsk and Luhansk inside Ukraine as sureties against Ukraine’s joining NATO. Under the federalization Moscow will insist on, each region will be able to vote on any decision to join a bloc, and thus Kyiv will face the Hobson’s choice of joining NATO with a smaller country or remaining outside of it with its current borders intact.

Lukin says that he doesn’t see EU membership for Ukraine as a problem as long as it takes place in a “synchronous” fashion with Russia’s relationship with Europe. “Putin,” he insists, “is the first European here.” The Kremlin leader doesn’t want to integrate with any other group besides Europe.

With regard to the United States, Lukin continues, Putin is “ignoring Obama,” but he doesn’t want to push things so far that the Republicans will win in the coming elections. “He needs Hillary [Clinton]. But in Europe we will not get into an argument with anyone.”

Asked how long this conflict will last, Lukin says there is no reason to think it will end soon. But Russia isn’t going anywhere. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has reason to hurry but Putin doesn’t. “In general,” he adds, Moscow would like “as an ideal” outcome “to return everything to where it was “under Yanukovych but without Yanukovych.”

Any fighting will reflect “the false certainty of the Ukrainians that they can win.” When it becomes obvious that they can’t, Lukin says, then a settlement will be reached on Moscow’s terms. He suggests that that end point is not so far off and that “the most active in a military sense stage has already passed.”

In presenting this interview, Gelman offers his own bitter observations: The Kremlin is violating the Russian constitution in Ukraine and consequently “any succeeding group of authorities [in Russia] can begin a judicial process against all those who are involved in this.” There will be plenty of evidence for them to use.

“This means,” Gelman says, “that Putin will seek to remain in power forever” or that if he does pass power on to a successor, it will be someone like Sergei Shoigu who has also “violated the constitution” and thus is implicated as well. That means that “no electoral activity has any sense, nor do legal parties” and that those in power will never give up power peacefully.

And that in turn means, whatever happens in Ukraine that Russia faces a horrific choice in the future: “either Putin eternally or blood in the streets.”