A full-scale war of the russian federation against Ukraine has been going on for several months, but vladimir putin has not been able to achieve significant results during this time. The plan to establish control over the entire territory of Ukraine, as well as the blitzkrieg for taking over Kyiv, has failed.
Currently, russian troops are trying to succeed at least in the East of Ukraine. But they also fail to seize the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts within their respective administrative boundaries. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are fighting back the russian invaders.
Political expert and Donetsk representative in the former Minsk TCG Serhiy Harmash told OstroV why it is critical for Ukraine to defend the Donbas, what putin is striving for now and why the war can no longer be resolved through diplomacy.
- Nowadays the Donbas is the main battleground. The russians have yet to achieve significant success. In your opinion, how important is it to defend the Donbas today?
- It is critically important for Ukraine to defend the Donbas and to keep at least 5% of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts under our control. As long as russia does not fully control the territories declared by the so-called "DNR-LNR" as their own (they are declared within the administrative boundaries of the oblasts), it cannot hold referendums there and annex them.
If russia is still able to annex the Donbas (which I don’t believe in), then the West, fearing the escalation of the conflict and the use of its weapons on the "territory of russia", may encourage us to sign some kind of peace agreement, which is not actually beneficial for Ukraine. At the same time, the West can simply stop supplying us with ammunition and weapons. They require constant replacement of components, as they wear out quickly. That is, the pressure can be not only verbal, we can be deprived of the opportunity to fight effectively.
- The war created a lot of problems for the West. An energy crisis, a threat of famine, which will increase the problem of refugees in Europe, as well as inflation and a drop in living standards. Naturally, Western politicians who are guided by their electorate are more concerned about these problems, and not about who controls the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. They would be happy if there were no war and no problems. For many (at least European) politicians it is secondary whose flags hang there. The eight-year experience of the Minsk peace talks clearly evidences this.
- Does this also apply to the territories of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, which are occupied by russia?
- For sure. If they are annexed and putin stops the offensive there.
- Can putin start the annexation from the Luhansk oblast without waiting for capturing the entire Donbas? According to Head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration Serhiy Haidai, 95% of it is already occupied.
- Theoretically, I admit such a possibility. He can annex only the "LNR" without waiting for the occupation of the Donetsk oblast to give the russian people a sense of at least some kind of victory. But it is unlikely that he will do this if there is a real threat (and there is) that we will recapture this territory. Since in this case we will fight on "the territory of russia", it will be humiliating for the russians when the Ukrainians smash them on "their" territory.
- How important is it for зptin to seize the Donbas completely?
- Very important. For putin, the Donbas is a justification for his "special military operation", which he launched at the alleged request of the "DNR" and "LNR". It is also an opportunity to declare it finished if the russian forces fizzle out. In addition, the Donbas is part of the land corridor to Crimea, which is the minimum plan for putin after he failed to seize all of Ukraine.
Putin wants to capture the entire Donbas and then annex it to the russian federation along with the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts. After that, he expects a cessation of hostilities. Putin thinks that Ukraine will not dare to attack a nuclear state. Or Western countries will be afraid to get into a conflict with russia because of the supply of their weapons to Ukraine and stop these supplies. He, like us now, constantly hears that the main goal of NATO, the United States, etc. is to prevent their direct involvement in this war. And also, that Ukraine is given weapons that should not be used on russian territory. So, his calculation has a very real basis. But I am sure that he is still mistaken, since our main allies - the United States and the United Kingdom - have already given signals and opportunities to hit targets on russian territory if these targets are used for aggression against Ukraine. Well, not a single adequate country in the world recognizes either the Donbas or the southern Ukrainian oblasts as the territory of russia.
It is important to understand one more key aspect - for putin, the conquest of the Donbas is not only the conquest of territory, it is the extermination of the most powerful, most numerous and most experienced military unit in Ukraine. If russia is able to defeat or capture it, the military power of Ukraine will be significantly weakened, and then the Kremlin, with the support of its Western European partners, will really be able to dictate any terms of peace to us.
- To sum up, what does putin want now? What tactical goals is he setting for the russian army in Ukraine?
- Having realized that he will not be able to seize all of Ukraine, putin wants to take control of four regions (the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts) within their administrative boundaries and stop there. That is, to go from offensive to defensive. After that, in the eyes of the West, he ceases to be a threat to the world, that is, the source of all those problems that we have spoken of before. He gains a foothold in these territories, declares that he has achieved the goals of the "special operation" and is ready to stop the aggression in exchange for the acceptance by Ukraine and the world, as Peskov recently stated, the "de facto situation" (that is, recognition of russia’s control over these territories). Accordingly, he will bargain with the West so that the West stops supplying Ukraine with weapons and it cannot win back its territories.
- Can the West agree to this?
- I'm afraid that there is such a possibility. Almost every day I see the signs of this - the statements of some Western politicians, the notorious Italian "peace plan", and a very fresh statement by President Zelensky that the West is already pushing Ukraine towards an unfavorable for us peace with russia.
Under these conditions, it is extremely important for us not to let putin stop and get to the defensive. We must not let him turn the war into a positional one, or, God forbid, into a truce, that is, to freeze the conflict. As long as he attacks, he is a problem for the world. As soon as putin stops and we start attacking the russians who have dug in on our land, we will become a problem for the West, which will put pressure on us. Let's not forget that we are using Western weapons and ammunition. In addition, the West assists us financially.
- Recently, rumors about putin’s illness and his imminent death have intensified. In your opinion, could the death of a dictator change the situation?
- It will depend on who will take over the power in russia. The opposition is out of the question, at least because there is simply no physical opposition present in russia today, they are all abroad. And I don't think that after putin's death, they will be welcomed with open arms in moscow.
In order to gain a foothold and support of the russians, the new government will have to play along with public sentiment, and the people today are charged with pro-war propaganda.
Therefore, we can say for sure that putin's death will not stop the war. Not right away. But at least for the period of the transfer of power, the offensive of the russian troops will most likely be suspended. Some units will be recalled to the capital. The Kadyrovites will vanish for sure. And this is the window of opportunity that opens up for the Armed Forces of Ukraine to launch a counteroffensive.
Most importantly: I am 100% sure that as long as the russian federation exists in the form of an empire, its war with Ukraine will not end. Regardless of who is in charge in moscow. Even if some liberal comes to power, over time, he will definitely turn into the same tyrant as putin because the very structure of the russian state requires tyranny for its self-preservation. It is molded from such different peoples, cultures and religions that only a despotic force can hold all of them together. A priori, there can be no democracy in the russian empire, because democracy would mean the collapse of russia. And undemocratic russia is an existential threat to Ukraine.
Therefore, if with putin's death russia does not become a confederation or does not break up into several parts, the war may stop for a while, but it will definitely not end. They will simply gather their strength, restore resources and resume killing Ukrainians. This answers the question of what should be considered a victory in this war. My answer is unequivocal: we must weaken the russian empire to the point that it cannot keep its peoples in check and is divided into several independent, democratic states - then we can live in peace with them.
- Let's talk about the negotiation process. It seemed that at some point the parties were close to signing an agreement, discussed a meeting between Zelensky and putin, but then the process stalled. In your opinion, what was the cause?
- I think that initially, our government, based on the capabilities and comparison of the forces of the warring parties, was not sure of our victory, therefore, it was actually ready for dodgy compromises. But then we saw what happened in Bucha and Borodianka. After that, it became politically impossible to talk about any concessions to putin. In addition, I think that it was not for nothing that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Ukraine around that time. Most likely, he gave the Ukrainian authorities assurances of such support, which will allow us to liberate our territories. And even if at that time, our government would have liked to end the war with difficult compromises, Johnson clearly showed the interest of the United Kingdom and, probably, the United States in defeating the russian army, and Kyiv cannot afford to lose the support of such allies.
- Recently, russian officials have increasingly begun to talk about Ukraine's unwillingness to negotiate. What could be the reason for this?
- I think these statements are addressed to the West, where the very fact of the war has created a lot of global problems. Many Western European politicians are still afraid of russia and consider negotiations to be a more realistic scenario for ending the war than a military victory of Ukraine or russia. Everyone is talking about this - from Biden to Macron and Erdogan. Therefore, when moscow talks about Ukraine's unwillingness to negotiate, the Kremlin turns the blame around on Ukraine, as if it does not want peace, which is the source of war and problems for the West.
- How do you assess our negotiating position?
- Our negotiating position changes depending on our capabilities. We started the negotiations very weak. And despite the bravado on television, where we were told how wonderful everything was, the situation was not so good. We were forced to negotiate with russia about things that cannot be negotiated with the aggressor.
- For example?
- For example, about membership in NATO or the future configuration of the Ukrainian armed forces. But the situation changed when we drove the russian troops away from Kyiv. We began to feel more military confident. Western weapons started arriving. Western leaders, especially the Americans and the British, began to help more actively and on a larger scale... New opportunities have appeared and thereafter our position has changed. And it will continue to change.
Although, of course, I would like us to have some red lines. President Zelensky often says that we do not bargain with the help of our territorial integrity. But at the same time, he agrees to bring the issues of Crimea and the Donbas into a separate negotiation process with russia. But if we negotiate the fate of the Donbas and Crimea separately from peace negotiations, then this will be a trade in territorial integrity. This will be a repetition of "Minsk agreements" by freezing the conflict, which will then come back to haunt our children.
- In your opinion, does putin want to end the war?
- We do not know how adequately he assesses the current situation, whether he actually sees the real picture. But even if he wants to, he cannot. The propaganda machine and the de facto status of a war criminal have left him no way out - putin cannot be a loser. Winners (even at any cost) are forgiven. But "woe to the vanquished!". He cannot just step away, even if he sees that the cost of war is already too high for russia. Especially in the Donbas, where he concentrated all his military power. If even after that he does not seize the Donbas, his army will cease to be the scarecrow with which he frightened the world. He will no longer be feared both in russia and worldwide. It is a political death for him. Putin has no choice; he needs to go all the way at any cost. Otherwise, he will lose power, and even life.
- What does it mean "to go all the way" to putin?
- At this stage, putin is ready to stop at the annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts. His decrees on the issuance of russian passports in these territories is a clear signal that he intends to keep them. Please note that in the Kharkiv oblast, part of which is occupied, russian passports are not issued. This suggests that putin is ready to withdraw troops from the Kharkiv oblast during the negotiations. But if things go badly for the russians in the Donbas, then I admit the possibility of their withdrawal from the South of Ukraine in exchange for an agreement on the supply of Ukrainian water to Crimea. I know that they are already testing the ground for such a compromise in the West.
- But what about the denazification, demilitarization and everything else?
- Putin can say that all this has already happened. He will declare demonstrative trials of the Azov Regiment as denazification, because they symbolize Nazism for russia. Demilitarization occurred as a result of hostilities and missile attacks on Ukraine, which destroyed a significant part of our military infrastructure. Ukraine's non-entry into NATO will also be declared as a result of a "special military operation". In a totalitarian country where there is no alternative point of view, the question of victory and defeat is only a matter of interpretation. Now he wants to control four oblasts, or two at the very least. This is the main focus for him now, because he considers this to be a realistic goal.
- Will Ukraine agree to this?
- It will depend on the frontline situation and our capabilities. Much depends on the position of the West, which provides us not only with weapons, but also with ammunition. If the supplies stop, we will find ourselves in a very difficult position. But I do not believe that everyone in the West is so foolish as to give putin a few years of respite, after which he will accumulate forces and will continue the war. In general, I believe that we should not agree to such an option, even if we have to move from the regular war to guerrilla warfare. We must not give russia the opportunity to rebuild its forces. Besides, even if the West would pressure the Ukrainian government of Ukraine, it will not be able to pressure our people. And Zelensky will always be able to appeal to the citizens. I think the West already understands that in Ukraine the people are the real and most powerful force.
- Should putin be allowed to "save face"? French President Emmanuel Macron spoke about this recently.
- Macron does not see the future of Europe without a totalitarian russia, otherwise he would not say so. If he is going to later talk about something with putin, who saved face, then he does not believe in the victory of Ukraine and in democracy in russia. Therefore, he does not believe in the strength and unity of Western democracies. If this politician wants to talk about something on a parity basis with a war criminal, then he has a crisis of values. In general, Macron is neither Churchill nor De Gaulle... But we also have other Western partners whose support we can count on (the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland and the Baltic states). Accordingly, in our foreign policy we must focus on those who are able to see the world not only today, but also tomorrow.
- Is it possible to apply the conditional formula "first a truce, then a peace"?
- Hardly, because there is a clear discrepancy between the interests of the parties. A truce would not hurt us now. But russia will not agree to it, because it needs to solve its problems by military means within the next month, until we get Western weapons. Moreover, putin does not spare his military and their fatigue does not seem to bother him much. They regroup on the move, not being able to recover. They face big losses, but as putin’s idol Stalin said: "Women will give birth to more".
If they seize the Donbas, then most likely they will try to use this strategic advantage to develop an offensive in the south. Again, there is no interest in a truce.
If they take hold of all 4 oblasts, they can talk about a truce. However, such a truce, when they are stronger and we are weaker, will definitely not be the road to peace. It will be the time to consolidate the annexation, recuperate and, in a couple of years, further advance along the Black Sea coast, all the way to Romania. That is, including Moldova. No wonder they have been keeping their military contingent there for so many years. They will not stop at creating a corridor to the Transnistria.
- What is the way out of this impasse?
- It's not an impasse. We are now holding back the offensive of the "second best army of the world" by all possible means, killing the West's fear of it, and waiting for Western weapons. Yes, the war is dragging on, but its outcome remains undecided. And we have many chances to win it by military means, without negotiations on any truces.
- But will there still be negotiations in the end?
- Diplomacy means compromises. Putin has taken over our territories. We want to get them back. What is the compromise here? Either one side or the other loses the territories they consider their own, or both sides lose part of the territories they consider theirs. I do not think that russia or Ukraine will be satisfied with either the first or second option. A compromise solution may be an agreement on a truce, but it will not the end the war, just postpone it... That is, there are essentially no options for acceptable compromises... Especially after Bucha. The russians are waging war in a way that leaves no room for compromise. I believe that this conflict has reached a stage where it cannot be RESOLVED through diplomacy. It may end diplomatically. That is, two delegations will meet, and the weaker side (I hope it will be russia) will accept the conditions of the stronger one. But this is not a diplomatic decision. The military will decide on the battlefield. And diplomats will only consolidate their results on paper. And this does not require a meeting of two presidents. These will technically be delegations that will consolidate the results achieved by the military on the battlefield at the diplomatic level. I am sure that there will never be a meeting between putin and Zelensky. The President of Ukraine has nothing to talk about with a war criminal and executioner of the Ukrainian people!
I do not believe that this war can be ended through diplomacy. I am not so naive as to think that the russians will withdraw troops even to the positions of February 23rd. I'm not even talking about the tens of thousands of the killed people who can't be brought back, about Crimea and CADLO. And without this, the Ukrainian people will not legitimize any compromise agreements with russia, even if the authorities are forced to agree to them. That is, the war will continue. We will only accept a just end to the war. And this means - russian warship must go f*ck itself, "Carthage must be destroyed!".
Interviewed by Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV