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Putin will never 'give up on Ukraine' as long as he's in the Kremlin, top Russia expert warns

Apr 2, 2022, 03:18 IST
Business Insider
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands in a hall prior to a meeting with his Belarus' counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 11, 2022.Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty Images
  • Putin will never give up on his goal of controlling Ukraine, Angela Stent, a top Russia expert, told Insider.
  • "This is something that's driven him for years, something he's obsessed with," Stent said.
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Even if Ukrainian and Russian negotiators are able to reach a deal that leads to a ceasefire in the Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin will not abandon his goal of dominating Kyiv, a top Russia expert warns.

"So as long as Putin's in the Kremlin, he's not going to give up on Ukraine," Angela Stent, who served in the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department from 1999 to 2001 and as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council from 2004 to 2006, told Insider.

"He is not going to give up on his goal of subordinating Ukraine" and "having a government there that's pro-Russian," Stent said, adding, "That's his goal. He obviously hasn't achieved it now and he probably won't in the near future, but he's not going give up on that."

"This is something that's driven him for years, something he's obsessed with...He is determined to subordinate the Ukrainians," Stent, now a Georgetown professor and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, went on to say.

Under Putin, who has ruled for roughly two decades, Russia has taken aggressive actions against Ukraine. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea. The Kremlin also began supporting rebels in a war against Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine that year.

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Putin doesn't believe that Ukraine is an independent nation, and in his view there is "no separate Ukrainian identity," Stent said. The Russian leader and ex-KGB operative has referred to Ukrainians and Russians as "one people," and has repeatedly suggested that Ukraine — formerly part of the Soviet Union — is not a real country.

'I do not see this as a serious negotiation at this point'

Ukrainian soldiers stand by a burnt Russian tank on the outskirts of Kyiv, on March 31, 2022.Ronaldo Schemidt/Getty Images

Talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in Turkey appeared to show signs of progress this week, but Stent does not believe Russia is approaching the discussions in good faith.

"They're not serious about this" and just attempting to "buy time" and find "leverage," Stent said, noting that the lead Russian negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, is a former culture minister and not someone with direct contacts to Putin or the Kremlin. To her point, there was an evident disconnect between Medinsky's assessment of the talks and the Kremlin.

Medinsky in a statement on Russian television touted Ukraine's willingness to adopt a neutral status, and abandon its NATO aspirations, stating, "Ukraine has declared its readiness to fulfill those fundamental requirements that Russia has been insisting on over the past years." Meanwhile, in remarks to reporters on the talks, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, "We do not see anything very promising or any breakthroughs."

"I do not see this as a serious negotiation at this point," Stent said.

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Russia in recent days said it had ended the first phase of its so-called "special operation" in Ukraine and would move toward focusing on "liberating" the the Donbas, while announcing that it would drastically reduce military activity near Kyiv. But NATO threw cold water on the notion that Russia was ramping down operations. "According to our intelligence, Russian units are not withdrawing but repositioning," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference on Thursday. "Russia is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region."

Kremlin-backed rebels already controlled roughly one-third of the Donbas before Putin launched this unprovoked, full-scale war in late February. Focusing on gaining full control of the region could be a logical next step for Russia in a conflict that's been disastrous for its military thus far, with thousands of battlefield casualties — including an astonishing number of generals.

But it's too early to tell if Russia, which has a history of employing misdirection in military operations, will make conquering the Donbas its primary aim moving forward. Ukraine on Friday said that some Russian troops were moving away from the capital, but fighting still continued nearby.

"They're still attacking a lot of other cities in Ukraine" Stent said of the Russians. "They may be focusing now on the Donbas, but I don't think anybody believes that they've completely given up taking Kyiv."

There could be a "long war of attrition" in Ukraine moving forward, Stent went on to say, pointing to Russia's brutal playbook in the conflicts in Chechnya and Syria, which involved besieging cities and ruthlessly targeting areas populated by civilians.

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