Q&A: Ukraine invasion an ‘obsession’ for Vladimir Putin

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defence minister, says Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will ‘try to get his hands on Ukraine’ as long as he’s alive.

Zagorodnyuk (right) said Putin will not pull back unless he is pressured into doing so from the international community [File: Virginia Mayo/AFP]
Zagorodnyuk, right, said Putin will not pull back unless he is pressured into doing so from the international community [File: Virginia Mayo/AFP]

Andriy Zagorodnyuk was the defence minister of Ukraine from 2019 to 2020 and now acts as co-founder and chairman of the security think-tank Centre for Defence Strategies.

Zagorodnyuk spoke to Al Jazeera about the current crisis with Russia. Moscow has denied planning to invade its neighbour and has accused Western leaders of hysteria.

This week, it said it was pulling back some of the more than 100,000 troops it has massed near Ukraine’s borders, and on Thursday it said some had returned to base.

Washington has said Russia is not withdrawing, but in fact sending more forces.

Al Jazeera: Do you believe the talk of a pullback of Russian troops?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: We don’t see any pullback right now, we actually see a relocation and manoeuvre of the troops so it’s too early to say. After February 20, when the Belarus military exercises are complete, [Russia] will have to decide what they will do so we will see if they stay or go.

Maybe some troops will say and some will go. We don’t see any substantial reduction so far.

Al Jazeera: How long do you expect this crisis to last?

Zagorodnyuk: This is tricky because as long as [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin is alive, he will try to get his hands on Ukraine. This is his obsession and it seems he is determined to do it one way or another.

Unfortunately, we don’t see there being a resolution unless he is really put in a difficult situation at home and by the international community forcing him to back off. Regarding this current crisis, we’ll be able to say more after February 20.

Al Jazeera: Can the Minsk accords help de-escalate Russia-Ukraine tensions?

Zagorodnyuk: Minsk has to be evolved somehow because it’s outdated. Minsk II was signed in 2015 and we believe it was breached by Russia pretty much straight away.

It talks about the ceasing of hostilities, which didn’t happen. They were supposed to remove foreign, in this case – Russian, troops – they didn’t. There was also a discussion about a dismantling of the illegal paramilitary formations – that never took place. The release of all political prisoners never happened either.

Minsk must evolve into something else, I believe, but Russia is ignoring the shortcomings and saying as a mantra “Minsk, Minsk”, assuming 99 percent of people have never read it so they won’t be able to comment.

Those who do read it – it’s not that long – understand it is a tricky document and it is hard to expect a resolution from it.

Russia is still claiming it is not present in eastern Ukraine, that those formations are independent entities – like independent states, though they are not recognised. We and the rest of the world, including the US, UK and all NATO countries understand it is Russia that is there and these are proxy forces that are totally dependent on Russia.

Until Moscow officially recognises their presence or the world stops considering it a closed topic, and not negotiating based on alleged independence, I think we’re stuck with Minsk. Until the world finds a firm position on Russian presence there, we will be walking around Minsk forever.

Al Jazeera: If there is an attack on Ukraine, what kind of form do you expect it to take?

Zagorodnyuk: It could be different. Russia always keeps a number of options open, it never has one plan. We are seeing serious tensions in the east of the country, which we have said since November was our number one concern.

We think an escalation could happen there and actually, it happened last night.

The number two concern is the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. There could be an attack from there and they are congregating huge forces there now – more battleships than ever in history.

Source: Al Jazeera