Wikistrat Insider: Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

On February 24, Russia initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by land, sea, and air. It was the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II and a confirmation of the West's worst fears. In our latest podcast episode, we invited Valeriy Akimenko to talk about Russia's strategy, the consequences of the sanctions, and the nuclear threat


Valeriy Akimenko worked for twenty-five years at BBC Monitoring, reporting first on Ukraine and then on Russia, specializing in the military and security. Nowadays, he is a Senior Research Associate at Conflict Studies Research Centre.




Full Transcript:


Marina Guimarães:

On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine. And since then, the conflict has already caused severe damage to civilian infrastructures, uncounted deaths, and of course, damage to the economy today. We're talking about the war in Ukraine. Stay tuned.


Marina Guimarães:

Valeriy Akimenko joined the Conflict Studies Research Center after 25 years, working at the BBC Monitoring Service, collecting open-source information for governments and commercial clients. His specialty is Russia's military affairs.


Marina Guimarães:

Mr. Akimenko, thank you so much for being here and joining us today on such a difficult topic. So Mr. Akimenko, a million people have already fled Ukraine. Human rights groups and activists worry about the situation inside their territory. We know the situation on the ground is dramatic. I'd like for you to tell us a little bit more about the people who are there.


Valeriy Akimenko:

Well, you're quite right to describe the situation as dramatic. I have contacts on the ground and quite an addition to what has already taken place, that is to say the encirclement of several cities and towns; the bombardment of Ukraine's second city, Kharkiv; the encirclement of Ukraine's Black Sea port of Mariupol.


Valeriy Akimenko:

This situation is Nationwide, I would say. For example, when Kyiv reports anecdotal evidence shall we say, is that the city is experiencing resupply problems, probably the case in many other cities, and of course, we, as you mentioned near introduction, have the massive flow of refugees out of Ukraine. People from the East of the country are fleeing to the West of the country, people from the West of the country are fleeing to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary. Some are trying to go into Moldova. So yes, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating and is likely to deteriorate further.

Marina Guimarães:

There's a huge scare behind Russian soldiers capturing nuclear power plants. Why is that?


Valeriy Akimenko:

There is a strategy behind that. And I think it's very much part of Russian military thinking in as much as the aim is, to encircle key facilities, including key cities, but also including key infrastructure facilities and Ukraine's several nuclear pipelines, very much part of the same game plan shall we say. So the plan is just as they have taken control of Chernobyl to the north of Kiev, also to target for example, Zaporizhzhia So that is very much part of the military thinking to block off, to seal of key installations be it military or civilian, such as in the civilian category, nuclear power plants, broadcast facilities, other key industrial facilities. So yes, there is definitely a logic behind that.


Marina Guimarães:

But is it also a demonstration of power?


Valeriy Akimenko:

Well, to take control of nuclear power plants are a demonstration of Russia's power, undeniably, militarily. It is also quite key, and that is to say, the Kremlin Moscow Russia is also quite keen to talk up this mythical threat of Ukraine's nuclear capabilities that very much has been in the Russian news over the past couple of days, including official statements. So we're to claim completely groundlessly, a ludicrous claim that Ukraine has a nascent nuclear capability and that with its nuclear power plants, for example, it could lay its hands on weapons grade plutonium, create a nuclear, bomb, then goodness knows what will happen. So there is also this ideological nonsense that accompanies, all these military accomplishments.


Marina Guimarães:

And since we're talking about nuclear, Sergey Lavrov, said that a third world war would be destructive in the middle of this... chaos. Was that a threat?


Valeriy Akimenko:

It is a threat. Russia is keen on nuclear threats. If you have a look at Russian pronouncements, that's just officials, I'm not talking about the Russian media because that's a totally different matter. But over the past couple of years, over the past 18 months, Russia, Putin, most of all has been a source of nuclear threats on a continuous basis. This is just the latest piece in the jigsaw puzzle. It's very much part of Russia's deterrence approach because as Putin himself acknowledged not so long ago , that coincided with the beginning of the war on Ukraine, Russia's military capacities considerably weaker than NATO's.


Valeriy Akimenko:

So any confederation that entail NATO, he's very keen to avoid that, hence his Nuclear threats, hence Lavrov's nuclear threats. As I say, the nuclear threats are not the determination of the Russian media. Now that is not a nuclear threat in the sense that nuclear war is imminent. As I say that very much is part of the deterrence approach to deter the West, to preempt any attempt by the West to even think about any intervention deterrents. So that has to be viewed from that perspective.


Marina Guimarães:

The Russian military is known for its efficiency. It's a strong military, everyone knows that. And the Ukrainian military has been a surprise for some people because some didn't know that it would be so effective in deterring Russia, at least for a few days. Was Putin surprised by the Ukrainian resistance?


Valeriy Akimenko:

Possibly. I would be disinclined to exaggerate either aspect of this equation, IE Russia's military strength and Ukraine's military strength, accordingly. Ukraine has scored significant successes over the past few days since the war began, but it must be said that defense is always easier than offense.


Valeriy Akimenko:

Russia obviously had a plan. It obviously did not work initially, such as it was. The plan for example, might have been to indeed mount a likeness of a special operation in Putin's mind. That is to say to flow forces such as special operations forces, police special forces. Specialized units, rather than the big guns, shall we say. Russia's infantry, its tank forces, although those are also present but are yet to be used. So Ukraine resistance, yes, it must have come as a shock to Putin because if, for example, Russian TV's narrative is anything to go by, most of the population of Ukraine hates it's own regime. It's ready to take arms or side Russians and so forth and of course it hasn't been the case. And why should it be the case? Who would want to side with a regime like Russia's?


Marina Guimarães:

And Putin is facing a lot of sanctions. Do these sanctions such as in banks and sports and airspace have an impact on a potential cease fire? If not, what would Putin's limit be?


Valeriy Akimenko:

The sanctions undeniably have an effect. Will be not immediate. The sanctions are likely to have long lasting damage on the Russian economy, on the cost of living and the standard of living in Russia itself. It is another matter whether Putin himself or shall we say the collective Putin, people who form his close entourage or the broader political class. The Defense Minister, the Foreign Minister Lavrov, the Chief of The General Staff Gerasimov, the MPs and so and so forth. Whether this class of populous in Russia itself is sensitive to sanctions, undeniably to some of them it will come as a painful blow. But I think the reality is that Putin himself has steeled himself and probably the Russian leadership against the prospect of further sanctions and has decided that at least for a while, Russia is in a position to, whether Russia is in a position to weather that is an open question, because many of the assets have been frozen as a result of the sanctions in the west.


Valeriy Akimenko:

And you never know, the effect could be greater than we supposed to begin with. Whether, it might have an effect on his immediate resolve. And that is, I think it could be taken as read to take possession of Ukraine is uncertain.


Marina Guimarães:

And a little bit now about what's happening in Russia, right? We've seen thousands of people protesting against the war. We have numbers that at least 2,000 people were arrested while protesting. Can these sanctions come from the European Union and its allies impact a potential reelection for Putin? Do they impact his popularity?


Valeriy Akimenko:

I'm personally always wary of assessments that suggest that hitting people, the people of Russia, where it hurts, in the pockets could have a substantial effect on their political sympathies. It might be the case. I'm not positive about this, but it would seem that there are two polarly opposite schools of thought in the population of Russians as a whole to this war. There is a school of thought that says that if not murders, then many people are supportive of Russia's operations in Ukraine. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is support. The second school of thought is that the thinking men and women in Russia will oppose the war in Russia in Ukraine and of course, they do so. But these two parts of equations do not necessarily correlate in as much as to suppose that sanctions even, well when they do affect people in Russia will result in the fall in Putin's popularity.


Valeriy Akimenko:

I don't think the dependence is linear in that way. I think it would be more rational to suggest that a way out of this conflict would be for Russia's internal forces, the rational segment of Russian society to Once again, to answer your question, I don't think the relationship between sanctions and Putin's popularity is linear. After all, many other factors could be and should be factored in such as... Tenuous as it might seem, Russia's sense of national prestige. If we have to believe that many Russians do indeed consider Ukraine to be part of Russia or another kind of Russians shall we say then, will sanctions affect the sentiment of those people? I doubt it.


Marina Guimarães:

And is there a way out?


Valeriy Akimenko:

For the moment? No. For the moment, it's hard to see either side giving ground. Russia thinks it's in possession of a colossal war machine, which on the surface of it, has how effective it is. We can see how effective it is right now. For Ukraine to exceed any of those demands. Be it the smallest of them, such as the recognition of Russia, sovereignty over Crimea or not to mention larger demands such as its demilitarization and denazification, whatever that means. I can't quite see how Ukraine can exceed that.


Valeriy Akimenko:

One possible avenue to explore is a commitment by Ukraine's President Zelenskyy to move towards Ukraine's military and perhaps political neutrality, which places constraints on Ukraine's NATO ambitions and Ukraine's EU ambitions. And so if Russia is happy with that, something might happen, but as I say, we'll see.


Marina Guimarães:

And at the end of this war, will Zelenskyy be the hero from the West?


Valeriy Akimenko:

Well, he already is a hero. No one expected a man who is popularly described in the Russian media, especially degraded as an ex-comic to find himself in a situation where I think we can say cometh the hour, cometh the man. That could fully be said of Zelenskyy. So yes. Well done.


Marina Guimarães:

Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by us. This was super interesting.


Valeriy Akimenko:

Thank you very much. My pleasure. I hope I was able to show some sort of light on what's going on.



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