Critical of both Russia’s and the US strategy in Ukraine, Mark Galeotti is one of the most distinguished Russia experts. His book “We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong” (2019) is one of the most thorough portraits of the Russian leader and the system of power that he has built around himself.
Professor Galeotti, who is also the director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, explains to Kathimerini the mysteries, the perils and the difficulties of the war in Ukraine that increasingly looks like a trap engulfing most of the great powers.
The Russian strategy was supposed to be “escalate to de-escalate.” But now it seems that the West has somehow adopted the same strategy. Both sides are escalating with no de-escalation in sight. Are you worried about that?
Yes, and no. I don’t think we’re heading to an inexorable escalation that will see World War III. But I am worried in the sense that neither side seems to have any real strategy about how this ends.
What is US President Joe Biden trying to do by calling for Vladimir Putin to be tried for war crimes? Is he trying to tell the Moscow establishment to find another leader?
I suspect that’s partially his intension. The problem is that the Biden strategy is not very clear. He is trying to do three things at once. First, he is trying to minimize the amount of violence that is going on in Ukraine. Second, he seems to be pushing for regime change within Russia. Third, he is attempting to reduce Russia’s capacity by hitting its economy. It’s a strategy that is trying to do everything. And as a result, it’s not really clearly focused on anything.
Putin is more dominant domestically than he used to be before the war. Can we realistically expect that he will be toppled by a pro-Western leader anytime soon?
There’s a lot of talk about palace coups but all this is very premature. A lot of Western leaders and commentators are talking about coups and rifts in Moscow because they can’t really see any way through. So, they’re just hoping that Putin is sick and will die or be toppled because it’s a lot easier than actually trying to think of a policy response to the current situation.
Do you think he is sick?
I don’t know. There are random rumors. People are suggesting again that he saw a specialist for thyroid cancer or an ear, nose and throat specialist. These rumors suggest something. But nobody knows. Of course there’s a difference between the Putin we knew pre-Covid, who was calm and managerial, and today’s Putin, who seems emotional and visceral.
How about the rumor that somebody very close to Putin is feeding information to the US?
It’s a campaign precisely to spread paranoia within the highest circles of the Russian system. The Americans would have been a lot more quiet about what they knew if they had to protect a really high-level source.
Everybody was surprised by the poor state and incompetence of the Russian army. Have you been surprised too, or were you expecting this less than stellar performance?
It was known that the Russian army had some problems, but the scale of the blunders was surprising. The explanation is that at the start it was Putin’s war. He made the invasion plan and ordered them to go because he was so convinced that Ukraine would collapse easily.
What would the Russian generals do differently?
The generals, if they had their way, would have started with a massive bombardment of every airfield and then they would carefully organize a combined-arms invasion. Instead, you had a half-hearted initial attack and then there was the strange sight of small paratrooper units driving into Kyiv. They honestly thought they could just get into the center of town and arrest the government. It was a botched operation right from the beginning because of Putin. Now the generals are trying to reassert control but they have already lost their land troops and many resources.
Is he going to go nuclear as a last resort? Why not bomb the Arctic with a nuclear weapon? Would it be a good warning to the US?
The current Putin can be much more willing to take risks than the old one we used to know. We should be careful when we rule out that he might be ready to go far. But still, I think the nuclear measures he took have been mostly about signaling. They have been there as an attempt to intimidate the West rather than being serious measures. Something like bombing the Arctic would be possible. But the Chinese would be very unhappy with the nuclearization of this conflict. The Chinese are not great friends of the Russians at the moment but they are the only serious friends. Bombing the Arctic would alienate them.
How about Russia using a small tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine?
Although Russia still has some tactical nuclear weapons, these weapons haven’t been used or tested for more than 20 years. Basically, there is no one within the Russian military who knows how to do this. They can move the rockets with the warheads to the area but they don’t know how to use them and what the real repercussions would be. They would be doing that literally by reading off manuals.
Finally, Putin sees Ukraine as a proxy state. For him it’s not a war with Ukraine. It’s a war with the West. Should we wake up to the realization that we are already at war with Russia?
Yes, absolutely, we are. It only takes one side to start a war. He’s not invading NATO states. But yes, we are. Absolutely, we have been for a long time.