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Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in a Russian-made T-90AM tank as he visits the Russian Armament Exhibition in Nizhniy Tagil, Sept. 9, 2011. (File: AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in a Russian-made T-90AM tank as he visits the Russian Armament Exhibition in Nizhniy Tagil, Sept. 9, 2011. (File: AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, pool)
Interview

What does Putin think he’s doing? An expert’s primer on why he invaded, what’s next

Moscow-born Ksenia Svetlova traces Putin’s rise, degeneration, war plans and failures, explains why he’s not (yet) using even more force, and posits a possible end to this tragedy

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in a Russian-made T-90AM tank as he visits the Russian Armament Exhibition in Nizhniy Tagil, Sept. 9, 2011. (File: AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, pool)

Ksenia Svetlova was born in Moscow, immigrated to Israel at age 14 with her mother, studied for her BA and MA at the Hebrew University, and became a journalist and then a member of Knesset (with the Zionist Union party).

She is now a director of the Israel and the Middle East program at the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. At Reichman University, she led a project at the Institute for Policy and Strategy that focused on Russia in the Middle East. Since the start of Russian invasion of Ukraine, she has become a prominent commentator in Hebrew media on the progress of the war.

The Times of Israel interviewed her to get her sense of President Vladimir Putin’s thinking, the West’s response, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s mediation efforts and other key issues relating to the war.

The Times of Israel: Before we start, just tell us a little about your background, the climate in which you grew up in Russia, and the source of your expertise.

Ksenia Svetlova: Well, I was born in Moscow, and we made aliya when I was 14 in 1991. Growing up there as a teenager, I soaked in a lot of what was going on. Our family was very news-oriented. I decided that I wanted to become a journalist when I was about 10, and that was definitely a decision inspired by all the changes unfolding in Russia at the time.

Guys not much older than myself, maybe in their early 20s, were our heroes, the heroes of perestroika. They were digging in the archives and revealing things we’d never known about the country’s past. And suddenly it was okay to talk and write about this. It was so interesting and exciting.

Women walk in front of a McDonald’s restaurant in central Moscow on March 9, 2022 (Photo by AFP)

Now, when I saw that McDonald’s is closing down in Russia — of course it was timely and reasonable, and we knew that it would happen, but my heart was pinched: We went to the first McDonald’s with my mom in 1990. It was the symbol of much more than just industrial food. It was a symbol of different times — that the USSR would be more open, more connected to the West, and that the future would be different. It was the promise of a different future. And that era, of course, is long gone.

Now I’ve become immersed in all of this again, at a much later time in my life. After we immigrated, my life here (in academia and journalism) was not related to Russia. I focused on the Middle East — something that was not intertwined with Russia at that point. But as Russia became involved in Syria, and after my stint in the Knesset, I led a project at Reichman University that focused on Russia in the Middle East. And I began to read and research more and more, and fill in the parts of the puzzle from the intervening years.

With everything taking place now, I think, well, yes, I get why it happened — why the big promise of different times and liberal values and democracy in Russia came to this very sorry end.

Journalist and political analyst Ksenia Svetlova, formerly an MK from the Zionist Union party. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And what were the missing parts of the puzzle?

Russia was a mess in the 90s. I didn’t live there, but my father still lived there. It was the Wild West in its very negative sense. And then this guy who nobody knew came to power, but he didn’t get there alone. He was pushed by a layer of other people, who wanted a place in the future Russia, a say in how it would develop, and to control it and its financial resources. And this guy, of course, was Vladimir Putin.

When Putin talks about the early 90s, after his service in the KGB, he says he was a taxi driver. Nobody knows if it’s true, but it is a kind of code: He was displaced. He did not understand what was going on. Suddenly neither Putin, nor the organization to which he belonged, ruled the country

By the end of the 90s, it was a struggle between the oligarchs — the men who are all sanctioned now, and some of whom fled Russia a long time ago — and the KGB. The KGB had changed its name, but it hadn’t disappeared. It was determined to regain its influence.

When Putin talks about the early 90s, after his service in the KGB, he says he was a taxi driver. Nobody knows if it’s true, but it is a kind of code: He was displaced. He did not understand what was going on. Suddenly neither Putin, nor the organization to which he belonged, ruled the country. He and other KGB men witnessed the rise of the oligarchs, who they believed were now leading the country together with, and perhaps even instead of, weak and fragile president Boris Yeltsin.

Putin and the KGB prevailed in that struggle; the oligarchs were subdued and those who didn’t succumb went into exile or were jailed, like Michael
Khodorkovsky. That’s what happened to Russia.

There have been different eras in Putin’s reign, but there were signs of the authoritarianism from the beginning. And of course, the style of KGB people like him is very different: Everything they say, you have to be very careful. They are trained to misinform, to create a smokescreen.

And from that point on, Russia was no longer a young democracy, or a place where there could be democratic development or movement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and former President Boris Yeltsin watch Kremlin guards marching in Moscow’s Kremlin, Russia, May 7, 2000. (AP Photo/Alexander Zenlianichenko, file)

He strangled the free press from the start. Before Putin, it was heavily influenced by the oligarchs, was owned by the oligarchs. Yet I remember that in the early 2000s, it was still possible to criticize the authorities, even the military and the intelligence people. Soon, this criticism became impossible. Many newspapers closed and in 2001 the independent TV station NTV was violently taken over. This was still the beginning of the 2000s, and Putin was still talking about himself as a democrat. He was saying: I’m a democrat, it’s just a different style of democracy.

When you rule in an authoritarian country, you have this kind of agreement with your people, which is what Putin had in the beginning: You promise them stability and economic development, and in return you ask them to give up their civil rights, their political rights sometimes, and so on. This arrangement was more or less working while Russia was developing and its economy was growing. But with the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, it ended. After that, the authoritarian leader could no longer rely on the willingness of his people to cooperate.

He needed more power. And every time you get more power, you want still more. And then you do things like invade Ukraine, to project power — not only to concretely implement your policy, but also to signal to your own population: See, this is what I can do. You didn’t believe I could do it, but I can. And I can do it to you too if you do not behave. So that’s what’s happening now, I think.

Could the West, the US especially, have prevented the invasion?

I did not believe Putin would invade until he made his alternative history speech on February 21, where he explained the roots of his beliefs and his ideology and what he thought about Ukraine — that it’s a nonexistent country — talked about the grandeur of Russia, that it should be basically reinstalled in its ancient borders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks at a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

After this speech, I understood that the invasion was a done deal, and there was no way to prevent it. And the now-published intelligence indicates that he had already decided to take these steps as early as six months ago. If that was the case, I don’t think the US could have done anything to stop it.

And what happens now?

This is the big mystery because the goals of this war — which is described in Russia as the Special Military Operation — are not concrete.

You have this wide goal of “denazification” and it can embrace many different scenarios. Russia can demand that [Ukraine’s President Volodymyr] Zelensky step down, because it says his government includes neo-Nazi elements. But it could also be satisfied with dissolving one of the Ukrainian nationalist battalions, such as Azov for example, that indeed includes the radical right and neo-Nazis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrive for a working session at the Elysee Palace, on December 9, 2019, in Paris. (Ian Langsdon/Pool via AP)

It depends on what kind of a victory picture, what image, they need to produce for their people.

They’ve only just started to involve the Russian people in this campaign. Until the last day or two, for twelve days, they did almost nothing to involve ordinary citizens except for broadcasting propaganda on television. Now they’ve started to do these car rallies, with the letter Z symbol, and they’re talking about having this special concert dedicated to the armed forces. They acted very differently during the 2014 invasion in Crimea. Then, they were very busy engaging the people, explaining to them why is it important, what the goal was. Not this time. It’s very bizarre. It seems that although the operation was planned, nothing around it was planned.

Their PR has worked internationally in the past — including with the annexation of Crimea. Today, when you are talking about Crimea, everybody says, Okay, we understand that of course it’s Russian, the population is Russian, so there is no problem. According to the few details I’ve heard of this plan Bennett reportedly brought to Zelensky, it speaks mostly about recognizing Crimea, recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk as separate entities, about [Ukraine’s] neutral status and the changing of the Ukrainian constitution [to delete the commitment to joining NATO].

After all of this humiliation in Ukraine, which he wasn’t able to take over in one, two or three days, and is still an ongoing act, Putin needs a much more significant victory image to present to his own people. Otherwise, he will be perceived as weak. And that was definitely not the idea behind this operation

Putin could have gotten most of it without the invasion. He didn’t need to invade and jeopardize his country’s economy to get this. Ukraine was not on the fast track to NATO. And this was stated more than once by [France’s President] Macron, by [Germany’s Chancellor] Scholz, by everybody. If he’d demanded just that, he could have gotten it easily and been victorious without firing a shot.

But now after all of this humiliation in Ukraine, which he wasn’t able to take over in one, two or three days, and is still an ongoing act, he needs a much more significant victory image to present to his own people. Otherwise, he will be perceived as weak. And that was definitely not the idea behind this operation.

Ukrainians cross an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing Irpin, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

I’m afraid that he will go to the end, which means bombing Kyiv — not necessarily conquering Kyiv, but bombing it, forcing its submission, forcing the Zelensky government to flee to Poland or elsewhere. This is a possible scenario. Of course, miracles can happen, and we don’t know what kind of deal can be done — secret deals that could include some other obligations in some other parts of the world. I have no knowledge of this.

But it feels as though the Russians are playing [disingenuously] with all of these suggestions [such as the one ferried by Bennett], in order to say, later, Listen: We wanted peace. We offered a peace deal. They didn’t agree to it.

And that is what Bennett is basically saying. This is what was published [on Tuesday evening] in Ynet and Maariv, quoting a senior source in the Prime Minister’s Office — that this kind of deal, the good deal that is being offered right now, will not be on the table tomorrow.

Israel believes that it’s a good deal? I can explain to you very easily why it’s not a good deal. Because recognizing the separate countries of Donetsk and Luhansk, which will be stuffed with Russian weapons, as they are today, with Russian army personnel, is a recipe for disaster. These areas will be expanded to the borders of 2014 — much wider borders than before the war. Cities like Mariupol will be conquered and part of this quasi-state. There will still be a Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine. There will be no reparations. There will be no security guarantees to Ukraine. None of that is in the reported deal.

That’s why it seems to me that the negotiations, at some point, will likely fail. Meantime, the fighting continues. People are dying. This all serves the Russian cause right now.

Does Putin truly believe that Ukraine needs to be denazified?

Only Putin knows what he believes.

Many of the Ukrainian journalists and some of the Russian journalists who knew Putin relatively well at some point, and fled Putin’s Russia 15, 10 and five years ago, told me [before this invasion] they were very much afraid that he’s being misinformed, that his perception of reality does not match at all what is happening on the ground.

And perhaps this frustration that Macron spoke about, and other leaders who were in touch with him — though not Bennett — derives from that: that Putin thinks Ukraine has this dangerous government filled with Nazis, and that the Ukrainian people actually hate it, and that if Russia would merely flex its muscles, then the Ukrainian government will fall immediately and the Ukrainian army will not fight. But you see what’s going on in real life.

Why isn’t he using more force, killing more people, doing even more terrible things, more quickly?

Because Ukraine is not Syria for him. Syria is remote. Russian people do not have families in Syria. But they do have families in Ukraine.

At the end of the day, even if he is able to destroy and conquer Ukraine, he will have to govern this place. He can just bomb and leave, of course, but then what would have been the point?

He is still a little bit cautious about using the full ability of his army, because he knows that the consequences will be much graver. And they’re already very grave, with Russia’s economy, the energy sector, and so on. But they can be even worse than that.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad light candles while visiting a cathedral for Christmas, in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Also, if Kyiv is just flattened, just like Syria’s Homs or Hama, it might prompt so much uproar in the West that eventually even the most cautious of the [Western] politicians will have to say, We have to step in because this is something that we cannot accept. You have this unbelievable manslaughter that is caused by one person, and the next country could be Estonia or Poland or any other country. And you have to draw the line somewhere.

For now, despite everything that is going on, it hasn’t made the West say, well, Ukraine is the red line because this is a country that wanted to be part of us, it wanted to be part of the West.

Biden said that they will defend every inch of NATO territory, but perhaps it will be too late already [if Putin expands his warmongering] — because the Estonian Army or the Latvian Army, they are not as strong as the Ukrainian Army. They will not be able to hold on for days or for weeks

By the way, there were also security guarantees, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for its territorial integrity. If this paper is worth nothing, maybe the guarantees to the Baltics are also worth nothing.

US President Biden said that they will defend every inch of NATO territory, but perhaps it will be too late already [if Putin expands his warmongering] — because the Estonian army or the Latvian army, they are not as strong as the Ukrainian army. They will not be able to hold on for days or for weeks.

US President Joe Biden announces a ban on Russian oil imports, toughening the toll on Russia’s economy in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, March 8, 2022. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

And remember, appetite comes with eating: Putin is not interested in all-out war with the collective West, because indeed it can deteriorate very quickly to something that none of us imagined a few months ago, which is a nuclear war. He’s seeking to subdue the Ukrainians, and to produce this image of powerful Russia that stands for what is right against the Nazis, like it did from 1941 to 1945. And right now, it’s not happening.

I had a difficult time believing that this kind of war was possible, because I thought that it would lead precisely to this result: an unclear picture in Ukraine. I thought he might progress much faster, but I was sure that the Ukrainian spirit, the partisans and this enrollment to the national brigades, would be massive, because I know a little bit about what people think there about Russia, about Putin, and they were eager to fight. They rebuilt their army. The nation is much more united today than it used to be in 2014.

And the other predictable consequence was the destruction of the Russian economy. I wrote in November that if Putin even thinks [of an invasion], then the Nord Stream 2 [gas pipeline project] would be canceled, because already back then there were question marks about whether the Germans would operate it eventually, and that if there will be more threats to Ukrainian territorial integrity, then it would be a perfect reason to cancel this project [as happened on February 22].

I was sure that after everything that Putin’s Russia did in the last few years — meddling in American elections, meddling in French elections, cyber wars, eliminating opposition politicians — the sanctions [on Russia for invading Ukraine] would be very harsh, and it turns out they are even harsher than I’d imagined.

If he had gone only to the Dombas area and said, I put my forces there today to protect the Russian people, and I’m taking more land in order to connect between Dombas and Crimea, for example, he would have gotten some sanctions, but not as hard and encompassing as now.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives in Germany for a meeting with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, March 5, 2022 (PMO)

Finally, is Bennett making a mistake in seeking to mediate this conflict, and causing damage to Israel?

There is potential for damage, yes, because for now, at least, everything that comes from the Prime Minister’s Office is very supportive of Putin’s formula for compromise. That’s a problem.

First of all, you have to be impartial.

And second of all, Israel is walking on thin ice. It still tries not to anger the Russians, but at the same time to indicate to the West that it’s still part of the collective West. From the position that Israel is taking, it’s actually unclear where we are.

Look at Turkey, which also offered to mediate. Look at what Erdogan is doing: He closed the Dardanelles and Bosphorus to Russian ships. Nobody thought that was remotely possible. He sells advanced weapons, his Bayraktor drones, to the Ukrainian army. He says, It’s not me, it’s the defense firms. It’s him. We all know that these firms need permission from him. But at the same time, he says, Yes, I’m willing to mediate.

He has this independent line. He doesn’t join the sanctions, but he does things he believes are right for his country. His line is much more confident and independent. Bennett’s [approach, by contrast] is problematic.

Now there’s this mediation, which I think has a very small likelihood of success, and has more potential to do damage — in the eyes of the Ukrainians, in the eyes of our Western partners, and the Americans as well. That’s why Lapid sped to talk to Blinken in Latvia, to explain to him that we are still with the US and we are still coordinated

Israel hasn’t joined the sanctions. Israel doesn’t let large numbers of refugees come here. It has basically legalized those 20,000 who are already here and added another 5,000, which is nothing. And now there’s this mediation, which I think has a very small likelihood of success, and has more potential to do damage — in the eyes of the Ukrainians, in the eyes of our Western partners, and the Americans as well. That’s why Lapid sped to talk to Blinken in Latvia, to explain to him that we are still with the US and we are still coordinated.

Macron also tried his luck a few times [without success]. I think he has much more leverage than Bennett over Putin.

We have no leverage over Putin.

We have no leverage over Putin whatsoever. It’s the other way around. We are dependent — in the north, specifically. So I cannot see that Bennett can put something on the table that will make Putin go and accept some kind of compromise that will be also acceptable to the Ukrainians.

And I think the Ukrainians are ready for compromise. They have this NATO clause in their constitution, but they can change it. Zelensky can probably do that now, because he has earned the right to decide on this — earned it by his behavior, by his leadership. But recognizing these two enclaves, which is basically allowing Russia to continue to meddle in Ukrainian affairs on a daily basis, seems very problematic.

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