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Putin’s Endgame: An Interview with Zvi Magen

Wikimedia. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy is focused on undermining the current global order.


Octavian Report: How do you see the crisis in the Ukraine playing out from here?

Zvi Magen: The crisis is not exactly a war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s more a conflict between Russia and the West, mainly the United States — albeit one taking place on Ukrainian soil. It’s more a political conflict, an economic conflict. Russia started the crisis because of the social turmoil in Ukraine and the accompanying revolutionary changes in Ukraine’s political status. That’s why Putin decided to involve Russia — not for military reasons but because of the political situation. Now, they have made gains in the eastern part of Ukraine on one hand, but on the other hand they took a very serious blow in the shape of economic sanctions. And to be frank it’s a serious challenge for Russia, all the more so because the sanctions are wisely organized. They do not target the whole economic system of Russia, they are more exactly aimed — namely, at high-ranking people within Russia who are involved in the economy. As a result of the situation, there is a conflict inside Russia and, so far as I understand the American strategy here, the main idea was and maybe still is to bring some instability or to change the system. This is the real situation, the real war, so to speak, going on around Ukraine.

The main problem confronting Russia now is how to end those sanctions, not how to win the war in Ukraine — that’s not their intention. We’re seeing infighting within the Russian system. I can recognize at least two groups fighting each other, maybe more. Their main interest is to find a way to extricate themselves from this situation. No one in the West, in NATO, in the United States is going to — for the time being — stop the sanctions. That’s why Russia is looking for leverage: to change the situation.

That’s why we hear the threats against Ukraine and other former Soviet Union countries. Also in the Middle East, because Russia’s activity in the Middle East is connected to its global project of standing against the West. They see this as taking place along one huge front starting with Ukraine and continuing to the Baltic states, for example, or Moldova, or the Caucasus. Their goal is to stop the process of their former satellites actually joining the larger Western system. They believe that the West intends to exploit and destroy the Russian system, that they have to protect themselves, and that the frontiers in this fight are the states of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine is one of them. Remember that in 2008, the Russians started a war against Georgia for the same reasons, because of the movement of Georgia to the West and more specifically towards NATO accession. This is the main concept of Putin’s doctrine: that all of those counties should remain under Russian auspices.

OR: Is Russia from your perspective, then, on the offensive or on the defensive?

Magen: It’s a defensive policy, strategically speaking: they are using it to defend, as I said, their sphere of interest. This includes Ukraine and other countries once within their orbit. They are forced to do it, as they see it — they believe that they are under attack. There’s a key difference between the Georgian and Ukrainian adventures, however: in Georgia, Russia attacked and won a quick victory. In Ukraine, it’s gone a bit differently. Ukraine is not Georgia, it’s a larger country and a relatively strong one. There was never the real possibility that Russia would conquer all of Ukraine or defeat its army — it’s too big for them. They used force to try to push the Ukrainians into a corner, as a lever to bring them back into Russia’s orbit, and they didn’t succeed. Ukraine is out of Russia’s orbit now. Ukraine is its own country. This is the problem. The fact that Crimea is in their hands, the fact that they are involved in some regions in the eastern part of Ukraine — this is done for tactical reasons, to create potential leverage, to create a crisis. The Russians are very good at creating crises and then providing crisis management. To Moscow, this policy looks like a successful one.

On the other hand, you can never know what the continuation of Putin’s policy will be, how far he is prepared to move. He has the army, he has the money. He is relatively weak, all the same, and he is playing cards — poker — and I have the feeling that at least the American side understands that situation and is ready to continue the game. Putin does not have a lot of new leverage to use against the West, but what he does have he is using correctly. Creating the threat, creating pressure, and offering solutions.

OR: Is that why we’re seeing him sell arms to the Iranians? Or why he seems to be making political and economic overtures to the Greeks?

Magen: All of these efforts have the same common denominator — they are all avenues to leverage. He’s trying to split the unity of Europe, he’s trying to create threats in the northern part of the Baltics. He tries to be involved in the Middle East, in all Middle Eastern crises, and he is relatively successful in doing so. He succeeded only last year in renewing his relationship with a lot of countries that were against Russian policy only a few years ago, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Of course, Iran is a separate story — the Iranian situation let Putin join the Western side, at least for the negotiation process. My feeling there is that he is trying to sell his achievements to the West to secure an end to sanctions.

OR: Does that mean we’re unlikely to see him precipitate some kind of crisis in the Baltics or to confront NATO more aggressively?

Magen: He hasn’t claimed that intention and, more importantly, he has no ability to bring to bear more military pressure than he already has put in play. Because it’s completely unacceptable, unbelievable even, to see Russians sending their army to conquer Ukraine or to do something bigger than Putin has already done in the eastern part of the country. It’s out of question that he would do something against the Baltics — all of the key countries there are part of NATO, and the fifth chapter of the NATO agreement means that if a NATO state is under attack then all of NATO will render military aid. He is, again, using all this as leverage. There is no war on the horizon.

OR: Do you think that he would shut off the flow of Russian natural gas to Europe as leverage?

Magen: He could, yes. He has the ability. He has enough, let’s say, paths and ability to try. I’m not sure about the final effectiveness of it. But he is looking for any possible lever, any possible way, to change the situation, to create a kind of atmosphere of conflict. Even now Europe is not united behind the common idea of fighting or stopping the Russians. There are different attitudes to this question. The truly hysterical reaction in Europe is now coming from Eastern European countries, former Soviet states, the Baltics, the Poles, and the Czechs. Of course, they are familiar with Russians and they are — justifiably — afraid; they would like to accept more backing from Europe or from NATO. But in Germany and France and even in England you will find a different atmosphere. Especially in Germany and France, which are both looking for the ways to calm down the situation and to find a path to an agreement. Russia would like to get there too, to some understanding, but without paying the price the West wants. That being, of course, Russia taking the military, economic, and political pressure off of Ukraine, to let Ukraine and other nations in the region fully leave the Russian orbit.

This would create a completely different strategic situation from Russia’s point of view, of course. To counter this, they are trying to achieve some effective federalization, let’s call it, of Ukraine, to split it into different regions under some common auspices. Of course, as they do this, Ukrainians are trying to move closer to the West. Again, the main problem for Russia now is the sanctions. They are effective and they are serving as a force multiplier for Russia’s domestic problems. All you can see now is turmoil on a global level because of threats and leverages and the creation of artificial conflicts. But the loser of the situation I already named.

OR: Is the oil price putting real pressure on Putin right now?

Magen: Yes. Moreover, Russians believe the oil price collapse is a form of Western pressure, that the crisis in the oil price was created artificially by a joint move of the United States working with the Saudis. This is very, very painful for them. It hits the main economic base of Russia — oil and natural gas.

OR: Do you think we’ll see a resolution to the Ukraine crisis this year?

Magen: I believe yes. The Russians are in a corner. To be on the safe side, let me say it depends on the American position. Americans control the situation now. But I believe that the Russians will offer something relatively accepting of the price delineated above, that they will find some common solution with the Ukrainians and the West — a Minsk III agreement, so to speak — and that will happen in the next few months.

OR: Vladimir Putin has become a major figure in the West, despite remaining something of an enigma. What are your thoughts about what drives him, what he’s trying to accomplish, and how stable his position is in Russia?

Magen: Putin is a tough and clever guy, on one hand. But he is relatively weak: Russia’s domestic stability is shaky; moreover we’re seeing competition for power among different factions within Russia. I’m not sure about his ability to continue in this situation in the long term. One of the reasons I believe that the conflict will finish this year is because of his weakened internal position. Because of the economic situation, Putin and many former partners, i.e. big players in business, are splintered. So look for pressure from the system that dominates business in Russia, oil and gas and energy, to push to stop the Ukrainian affair. They would like to achieve some agreement.

On the other hand, the military and the industry that supports the military would like to continue. They have no interest in ending the conflict. There are different camps in the system. There’s tension among them and Putin is in the middle. He is playing the game. Maybe he’ll win. For the time being, however, it seems that he is not a winner — but that he survives. This is the situation with Putin: he is not a dictator or conqueror looking for war or for long conflict. He wants to survive this crisis. And I’m not sure he will.

OR: What do you think the chances are that Putin is forced out?

Magen: Fifty-fifty.

OR: Would a more militant group come in? Or do you think we would see an opening-up of Russia?

Magen: It seems that the military group has become stronger over the last few months. Keep your eye on Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister of Russia. My impression is that he is the head of this military group, he is of course Minister because of it, and he has — with the exception of the army — real loyalty among the different groups in Russia. The general atmosphere in Russia is relatively unstable. Remember that who suffers the most from the economic sanctions is not the whole population, but mainly the tycoons and the oligarchs. That’s why Shoigu has the chance to at least press or to push Putin to continue the conflict. It’s an unstable situation. I believe that NATO and the Americans are familiar with this assessment.

OR: Is Putin entirely driven by the need to preserve his own power? Or does he really believe in the Russian revival and its concomitant nationalism?

Magen: Putin and his allies would like to revive and to renew Russia’s status as a — I won’t say empire — but as a power, a global power. Maybe even a superpower. That’s why their policy is based on the concept of a multipolar world. At the moment, the world is monopolar in terms of geostrategic power, and that pole is the United States. Multipolarity implies that there would be a group of world powers, including China and one or two nations in Europe. Russia wants be part of this multipolar world. Putin believes, and the people around him believe, that it is the destiny of Russia to be a power and to keep a position of global importance. Not as an empire, perhaps, but as a leading state at least. And practically speaking, Russia has, at least for the time being, the capacity and enough of a power base to at least try to realize this vision. Putin has succeeded so far. When he started his presidency, Russia was weaker than it is now. Putin started a completely new global policy without being a military power.

One of the needs he faced was and still is to replace the Soviet Union with a new local or regional organization of Eurasian unity — Eurasian unity having more or less the same territorial outlines as the former Soviet Union. Putin started with central Asiatic countries. Now he needs Ukraine, first and foremost, and all other countries that are still not in NATO to stay with him and to help him to create this new system. Then Americans appeared with American ideas, with NATO, with Western concepts. This is the name of the game. But he would like to survive this conflict, this crisis, and to continue his quest to become a power.

OR: Do you think there’s any chance that Russia would go back to the movement towards democracy that we saw under Yeltsin?

Magen: Not yet. Russia is unprepared. You can see that the bigger part of the population believes in the idea of Russian power, the idea of becoming a global power again. They have almost a messianic belief in this. This is not exactly the stuff you create democracy from. To become a democratic country you need a period of education, of preparation, to change that atmosphere. This is not happening now in Russia. Of course there are a lot of people who dissent from the prevailing view, mostly young people — real democrats and liberals. But they are a minority. The majority is with Putin. During the war, the Ukrainian conflict, he became much more popular because of the absorption of Crimea.

OR: Do you think he views Obama as very weak?

Magen: I’m Israeli. We have some problems with Obama. I’m telling you this because I don’t think Obama is the weak one in this fight. I think that it’s a question of the system. The American system is strong and it has a flexible and wise strategy — I’m speaking here about global strategy. Of course, we have some different opinions about the Middle East. But generally speaking this conflict was dominated by Obama. Because without a single shot, without a single boot on the ground, Russia has been put in a very bad position.

Obama has to fight three primary conflicts, on three fronts: Russia, the Middle East, and the struggle against global terrorism. Russia is only one of them: of course Russia has a nuclear arsenal equivalent to the United States, which means they are the only one who is able to destroy the United States — and therein lies the rub. But as far as I can see, though, Obama’s play here has been relatively successful.

OR: You served for years in Israel’s foreign service, so let me ask: how have Russia-Israel relations been recently?

Magen: Relatively very good. Russia, generally speaking, adheres to a policy of being friends with everyone in our region. Wherever it’s realistic to achieve some diplomatic success, Russia is doing so and doing so ably. Russia is the only one — and they are proud, let me add, about this diplomacy — able to speak with Iranians and with Saudis and with Shiites and with Sunnis and with Israelis and with Egyptians. So they definitely try to keep relations with us on good terms. Not least because they are looking for future opportunities.

Israel is a very problematic state for many of its neighbors: it’s the only state in the region which has the military capacity to fight and defeat every other regional power both separately and together. Russia is active in our area, in Syria, in other places. Having this kind of state on the border is not an easy thing. They have to keep an open eye on Israel and that’s why they look for positive relations, on one hand. On the other hand, they look for opportunities to use Israel as a lever to help them with local states and even with the West. It’s a positive relationship.

OR: What do you see as being the main domestic threat to Putin?

Magen: The recent murder of Boris Nemtsov can be instructive here. It’s still an open question who killed him. We can see that the accusing finger was aimed at Chechnyans and by extension at Ramzan Kadyrov, the governor of Chechnya. He and his Chechen army are in conflict with the FSB, the Russian secret police. We can find separate armies, separate organizations, which are in conflict with each other. I would like to remind you that some time after the killing, Putin personally disappeared for more than two weeks from the media. There were and are many guesses about what happened to him, and there are rumors that he was and still is sick. My impression is that he dropped out of sight at the start of problems, maybe even personal problems, with his — call them colleagues.

I have the feeling that somewhere in Moscow is activity we can’t recognize. I can feel it. I believe that we’re not supposed to know about what’s going on but I have the feeling that it’s a fight. From time to time you can hear names of people like Shoigu. He’s not the only one — there’s Dimitri Rogozin, for example, the current deputy P.M. — to crop up as a candidate troublemaker for Putin. Yes, Putin is surviving; yes, for the moment he may even have won. But I’m not sure for how long; one of his reasons for wanting to stop the conflict with the West — and end the sanctions — is fear of instability within his own system. And this is exactly the threat that could bring him to the end of his rule, via assassination or revolution. He would not be the first ruler of Russia who was replaced by his own colleagues. This is the situation. But it doesn’t mean that he is seriously threatened. This is one potential scenario.

OR: You gave the odds of a Putin exit before at fifty-fifty. Let’s say he does fall: after him what? Does Putinism survive without him?

Magen: It depends on the situation. He is surrounded by relatively strong personalities. He has different armies of his own — I mentioned Kadyrov and his Chechens. But on the other hand, there are people like Shoigu with two private armies. One is the Russian one, the Russian army, and there is another force he created before his last job. It’s a special-situations force and its members are very loyal to him. All this means that a coup bid by Shoigu would be backed by a credible amount of manpower and strength. A Shoigu coup might not mean that much in terms of actual policy differences. 

On the other hand, if Putin goes, his ousters could easily lose control. Russia is a very delicate situation: if powerful, central political and military control is lost, anything could happen. It’s not a strong country; it’s a huge and internally divided country with separate areas. Anything can happen. 

OR: Do you think Poroshenko is going to survive?

Magen: Ukraine is a weak country. I like it very much. I served in Ukraine. It’s beautiful. But practically it is a very weak country. It’s not organized enough. Poroshenko is a strong personality. But he was relatively unprepared for this job, he and the people around him. And no one in the West will fight for Ukraine. I don’t see NATO or the American armed forces really getting involved in the fighting. What will happen is the continuation of Russian pressure on Ukraine to destabilize the country or to replace Poroshenko. If this were to happen, it would not be the first time. What happened to the Orange Revolution and its backers? What happened to Viktor Yushchenko? To Yulia Tymoshenko? They were replaced by Russian or pro-Russian people. I can’t imagine that Poroshenko will win in the contest with Putin. He will either change his mind or the Russians will replace him.

Furthermore, the whole Ukrainian system — I refer here to its special services and its military — is full of Russian agents, looking for opportunities to replace Poroshenko. But you can never know. With enough advisors and support, maybe he’ll survive. He needs more time to organize his country and to organize the military. His country is split up and its interest groups separated. But with some help he will, perhaps, survive.

OR: Thanks very much, Zvi.