Are we missing the essence of the Russia-Ukraine war? We are waiting for the Armed Forces of Ukraine to break through the Russian front and recover Ukrainian territory, but perhaps the real drama lies elsewhere. Vladimir Putin caused Russia’s war on Ukraine. He will never agree to withdraw his troops from Ukraine unless he is defeated.

 

If the war can only be settled if Putin is ousted, isn’t it better if Putin is defeated by his own in Russia than the numerous Ukrainian soldiers who have given and continue to give their lives for what is essentially a Russian issue? Sensible Russian liberals, such as Leonid Gozman and Viktor Shenderovich, are calling for Russia to capitulate for its own sake as Germany and Japan did in 1945.

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The Yevgeny Prigozhin revolt of June 23-24 showed that the Russian homeland is virtually undefended, since Putin has sent nearly all of his real troops and arms to Ukraine. Apparently, it is better to attack Russia proper than the fortified and landmine-saturated occupied territories in Ukraine.

Prigozhin’s revolt was a coup attempt. After a failed coup attempt, strong regimes, such as Erdogan’s in Turkey or Maduro’s in Venezuela, clamp down heavily on those responsible for the putsch. On the contrary, Putin displayed his weakness by holding a meeting in the Kremlin with the 35 leaders of the coup. If a failed coup is not seriously punished, a more serious coup often follows. That weakness is likely to be fatal for Putin.

Russia Tries to Advance Before Ukraine’s F-16s Arrive, Says Syrsky
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Russia Tries to Advance Before Ukraine’s F-16s Arrive, Says Syrsky

Kyiv’s Commander-in-Chief said Russia is now working hard to erode Ukraine’s forces the best it can before F-16s arrive and strengthen Ukrainian skies.

After the Prigozhin revolt, we found to our great surprise that Prigozhin is free and flies around Russia in his private jet, fully illustrating Putin’s frailty. Admittedly, the Kremlin has sacked or detained about twenty senior military officers, including several top generals, but this seems to merely underline the splits in ranks of the military. The most effective generals seem to have been sacked to the benefit of desk officers, in a move which will weaken the Russian military. Meanwhile Russian soldiers make videos protesting about being treated as cannon fodder.

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It has been unclear what would happen to the Wagner soldiers, but it seems as if the bulk of them are being sent into exile in Belarus, without armor or heavy weapons. Again, this suggests the weakness of the Putin regime and leads to the obvious question - should we focus more on internal Russian strife rather than just on a Ukrainian breakthrough?

If so, the Armed Forces of Ukraine would be right to save the lives of their soldiers just beating the Russians back until the Putin regime collapses. It is surprising that the brittle Putin regime has been able to hold together for so long, because its soldiers have nothing to fight for. 

Eight months ago, Maria Pevchikh and Georgy Alburov, from the admirable investigative Navalny group, made a revealing video about General Sergei Surovikin. General Armageddon, cooperated with Prigozhin in Syria, and made big money by ensuring that Gennady Timchenko, Putin's wealthiest crony, gained control over Syrian oil, gas and fertilizer assets. This shows how the Kremlin’s current conflict with Prigozhin / Surovikin goes straight to the top of the Putin’s organized crime syndicate. 

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The silovik division, those who work for any state organization authorized to use force against citizens, also involves the FSB. The excellent independent Russian exile media Meduza has written about how the former FSB colonel Mikhail Polyakov, who oversaw pro-Kremlin Telegram connected channels with Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Sergey Kiriyenko, was arrested for extortion.

Kirienko, the erstwhile ally of my late liberal friend Boris Nemtsov, has long worked for the hardline St. Petersburg brothers Mikhail and Yuri Kovalchuk, who are very close to Putin. Mikhail controls Rosatom and the Russian nuclear energy industry, while Yuri is Putin’s banker and media tsar. The brothers Kovalchuk are usually seen as Putin’s closest (and dumbest) advisors. Mikhail does speak in public and he is as Soviet as they come.

Timchenko, the Kovalchuks and Arkady Rotenberg are the people who take out money from the state companies for the benefit of Putin. Does the current drama mean that the brothers Kovalchuk have broken with their previous close ally Timchenko? It would seem logical but it is by no means obvious. Timchenko never says anything in public and Yuri Kovalchuk hardly ever.

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In any case, the Russian splits in the military and the FSB are obvious and division in the Putin organized crime circle is likely. The Putin regime appears brittle.

This offers a different perspective on the best strategy for Ukraine. Given what we know from the incursions into Russia and the Prigozhin revolt, would the optimal and least bloody approach be for the Russian volunteers opposed to Putin to act in Russia?

The main threat to such a strategy might actually be the US. Because of astounding ignorance about Russia and nukes, it is afraid of Russian destabilization, just as George HW Bush opposed Ukrainian independence with his Chicken Kiev speech in the Ukrainian Rada on August 1, 1991. Learn history! The threat is not destabilization of Russia, but Putin! Nobody, including Putin, will benefit from using nuclear arms! The faster Putin is defeated, the less is the risk of nuclear war starting. Stand up for freedom and democracy!

Anders Åslund is the author (with Andrius Kubilius) of Reconstruction, Reform, and EU Accession for Ukraine (Frivärld 2023).

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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