Moscow, Russia – As the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine approaches on Friday, Al Jazeera spoke to Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian defence analyst who served as a senior research officer in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Felgenhauer, who has published widely on Russian foreign and defence policies, military doctrine, arms trade and the military-industrial complex, believes the war is likely to escalate but could end this year.
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According to him, after 12 months of bloody battles, “the intensity of the fighting is too high for it to be maintained for long”.
Which side will ultimately seize a decisive victory?
Like most experts, he says it is simply unpredictable.
Al Jazeera: Why do you think an escalation is imminent?
Pavel Felgenhauer: We cannot totally predict everything. But I believe that an escalation right now is imminent. An escalation in the fighting; everyone is talking about a Russian offensive. Western military commanders in Brussels are also talking about how the Ukrainians should go on the offensive. General Mark Milley [Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff], who a year ago was talking about how Kyiv could fall in couple of days, now says that Russia has lost strategically, operationally and tactically, and Ukraine should sort of go out to finish them off.
Ukraine is preparing something, but again of course, everyone is following the teachings of Sun Tzu, meaning war is deceit. And if you want to attack, you pretend that you don’t, if you’re ready to attack and strong enough, you pretend that you’re not ready and you’re not strong at all. And vice versa — if you’re not strong, you pretend that you are strong. So there’s lots of disinformation right now circling around. Each side is seeking surprise.
Al Jazeera: But there have already been surprises on the battlefields?
Felgenhauer: Ukrainians did it in September in Kharkiv. They achieved surprise and achieved a lot. Not only did they capture some important strategic points and force the Russians to withdraw from Kherson to get the reserves — they also forced the Russians to begin the mobilisation programme that caused a lot of economical and political problems.
I mean, they withdrew several hundred thousand men from the economy into the military, and almost up to two million fled the country at the same time — which is a big drag on the economy too.
Al Jazeera: Isn’t Russia faring better than expected? Doesn’t the economy seem to be stable even after strict sanctions?
Felgenhauer: Russia, of course right now, has very serious financial problems with a deficit that’s being financed by printing money. It has problems on the battlefield at the same time.
I don’t see how this can continue in the present pattern for a long time. It’s like football, you never know what’s going to happen actually on the battlefield. There’s a well-known saying that “Russia is never a strong as your fear”, as we see during this year, but “Russia is also never as weak as you hope”. So you can’t just write off Russia. The intensity of the fighting is too high for it to be maintained for long.
There will be problems in the West with supply, but they are a bit more manageable because the Rammstein collation’s gross GDP is more than 100 times of Russia. So financially and economically, they are more prepared for a longer conflict than the Russians.
But who’s going to win? I don’t know, war is like football. Everyone who believes that Brazil should win but it doesn’t win every time.
Al Jazeera: If it is such a drag, why did Russian President Vladimir Putin go to war?
Felgenhauer: There was a military reason — to prevent Western missiles appearing in Ukraine for a direct strike on Moscow.
There was a geopolitical reason — to reunite the Russian people, assuming that Ukrainians are Russian people, and to defy the West and actually undermine Western unity.
Also, to cause friction within the Western alliance and also establish a new multipolar world.
So there were a lot of different reasons, including the belief that the Russian military is so strong that this is going to be a very swift and very effective military victory that will bring a lot of different political, economic and geopolitical dividends. That this is the right thing in the right time.
Al Jazeera: So what went wrong for Russia?
Felgenhauer: The Russian military turned out to be not as strong as not only the West believes, but its own leadership believes. It’s not ready for modern warfare.
The Ukrainians are much better, they were better prepared organisationally and in terms of command and control, in terms of command personnel, and then they got better weapons than the Russians.
The Russian military has been isolated for more than 100 years from world tendencies in war-making. They are still living in the world of tanks, believing that if you mass enough, victory falls into your lap.
They were not prepared intellectually, mentally, and physically for the conflict.
There were, of course, people even in the Russian military saying that this is a bad idea, that there’s going to be lots of Ukrainian resistance, that Ukraine has a lot of troops — and there’s going to be Western support.
But those who were making the top political decisions apparently lived in the dream world.
Al Jazeera: But tensions between Ukraine, an ex-Soviet state keen to be absorbed into the Western political landscape, and Russia did not begin suddenly on February 24, 2022. There’s a historical context to all this, isn’t there?
Felgenhauer: Of course, this conflict has a long history after the demise of the Soviet Union and the breakup between Ukraine and Russia. This was a serious trauma for the Russian elite. They believed that this was wrong and Ukraine was seen as an integral part of Russia. So, in the end, we will all get back together, back again happily into one great big old Russian family. That’s what many officials told me in the 1990s — that there were no problems that, for instance, there are negative birth rates in Russia and the number of Russians is declining. They said, ‘No problem, Pavel, we will take over a half of Ukraine or Belarus, a half of Kazakhstan, will get after 40 million good Slavic people into the fold and everything is going to be just OK’.
The idea that Ukraine has left Russia for good and will become a totally independent entity was not really contemplated. Maybe as a temporary thing, but not for keeps.
Al Jazeera: Where does Putin stand on this?
Felgenhauer: Putin has been saying effectively that a semi-independent Ukraine is tolerable, as long as it had a kind of political integration with Russia.
But for Ukraine to become a member of the European Union, a member of NATO, that is totally unacceptable. [Russia] believe many Ukrainians and Russian speakers may not want that. [Until recently] Ukrainian joining NATO was not a majority opinion in Ukraine. So this was a kind of moving factor that [Russia believed it] should prevent — the integration of Ukraine in European and Atlantic structures, especially NATO.
Al Jazeera: Is it just sociopolitical? An opposition to the integration of Russian speakers with Europe…
Felgenhauer: There are specific military reasons.
The Russian military, since the time of the Cold War, believed the West is preparing so-called decapitating attacks. [So the theory goes], any kind of war between Russia and NATO, or Russia and the United States, begins with a decapitating attack to physically destroy and to disable the Russian military and political leadership. Their plans are to decapitate Russia and then finish all the disorganised resistance.
The West has been building capabilities for such a strike. This led to the missile crisis in Europe of the 1980s, when the Americans deployed ballistic missiles which were accurate. These were missiles with guided warheads that could reach Moscow region in several minutes from Germany and also cruise missiles that were smaller but also were very accurate. This crisis almost led to war and then disarmament with the end of the Cold War. But the Russian military never forgot it.
Al Jazeera: So what has the military been telling its commander-in-chief?
Felgenhauer: From the time of the Soviet political bureau, it’s been essentially telling the political elite, “These guys want to kill you. Personally, you, members of the Kremlin, the ruling political bureau”.
Then they were telling the same to President Vladimir Putin, that there is a decapitating attack being prepared. This is very serious.
Al Jazeera: Why hasn’t diplomacy worked?
Felgenhauer: In the West, some say the conflict can be frozen on present conditions, others want to continue to defeat Russia on the battlefield. There’s no unity in their ranks.
There’s not real incentive for Russia either, for President Putin to surrender Kherson, Mariupol, Crimea, even the Donbas — it looks like political suicide.
The Minsk agreements, in September 2014, were signed because of a Russian initiative. There was no Western mediation with Minsk I because the thinking was that [then-president Petro] Poroshenko will have enough power to make deals with Russia. He will be our man. Then there was Minsk II, that came about with European moderation.
What Russia wanted was a guarantee that it will have a foothold in Ukraine. It turned out that it doesn’t work and Ukraine is moving in the “wrong direction”. The Russian military was ready to go before; actually in 2014 [Russian defence minister Sergei] Shoigu announced that we are going over the border in April. Then several times, they prepared. The last big dry run was in April 2021, when Russia gathered a massive force on the Ukrainian borders but then didn’t go in.
Al Jazeera: Surely there is a tremendous human and economic cost for this war of attrition?
Felgenhauer: There are really heavy losses on both sides. We are talking about tremendous loss of life. Apparently, these losses are not prohibitive and both Russians and Ukrainians are ready to continue. So both sides right now, both people are ready to continue the fight. But I don’t think that this will last indefinitely.
Al Jazeera: Do you believe that this conflict will come to its end soon?
Felgenhauer: I believe it will end this year.
They tried talks in March, then meetings in Istanbul, which hinted that they’re moving towards some kind of an agreement. But Russia and Ukraine were miles apart.
Ukraine was more or less ready to agree in February 2022. Now Ukrainians say they want more and Russia also says it wants more. So again, two sides are miles apart.
It seems that there’s no political agreement or even a tentative ceasefire in the offing.
Of course, Russia right now wants to freeze the situation more or less as it is on the line of control, as it is. Ukraine says it doesn’t want that. Someone has to give. And that’s most likely going to be on the battlefield.
If one side will begin to clearly win on the battlefield, that will be decisive. Military victory can bring the other side to real crisis — and maybe even regime change.
This interview was slightly edited for clarity and brevity