I name here a few key points from an article written by Ilya Zhegulev, also translated into German on dekoder.org. Ilya Zhegulev has worked for Meduza and Forbes Russia, he has conducted a final Interview of Russian Oligarch Boris Berezovsky shortly before FSB agents killed Berezovsky.
Here is the outline of his article.
- First attempt to split Ukraine
- Putin feels offended by the USA
- Anti-Ukrainian philosophers taught the Russian President to be against Ukraine
- Putin decides to seize Crimea
- Putin feels offended by Zelensky
- Putin decides to start an all-out war
Yanukovych 2010 – Our Son of a Bitch
After Kutschma stepped down as president in 2004, Moskow and Putin supported Janukovich – who lost to Jukaschenko in 2004, but won the election in Ukraine in 2010.
Immediately after taking office, Yanukovych took steps that Moscow could not have dreamed of even in the days of the moderate politician Kuchma: he spoke out against Ukraine joining NATO, initiated a law on the status of the Russian language as a regional language and expressed the position that the Holodomor was not a genocide against the Ukrainian people, but a general problem of Soviet history.
THE COUNTRY WAS RULED BY A PRESIDENT WHO ACTUALLY WORKED FOR US
“Our intelligence services were in the Ukrainian government, running the country and individual companies. Why intervene when everything was ours anyway?” reports an informant close to the Russian presidential administration. According to him, the plan was simple: rapprochement with Ukraine along the lines of rapprochement with Belarus. “The country was run by a president who actually worked for us,” explains the informant. “Just as the US had President Fulgencio Batista in Cuba at the time, we had Yanukovych in Ukraine. The relationships were the same. Of course we passed him and helped him. He was our son of a bitch.”
How Putin felt offended by the USA
THE KREMLIN SAW ACTIONS LIKE THE ORANGE REVOLUTION EXCLUSIVELY AS THE RESULT OF WESTERN INFLUENCE
Putin: “It is not the people of Ukraine who stage a revolution, they are influenced and manipulated by the West.”
The first blow to Putin was the Rose Revolution in Georgia , when after mass protests the pro-Western candidate Mikhail Saakashvili, who Putin did not understand, became the new Georgian president.
The second and more serious blow was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine 2004.
It wasn’t about the relationship with Ukraine. It wasn’t just the Maidan revolution, it was a break with all the rules of the game,” explains an informant who is close to Putin, explaining his logic of insult. The Kremlin did not take seriously citizens’ right to change their country’s government through rallies and elections, and saw such actions solely as the result of external influence from the West.
In his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin emphasized Russia’s claim to international status. He accused the US of imposing a morally unjustified, unipolar world order. He also criticized attempts to democratize Russia from outside. Some observers see the speech as a turning point in Russian foreign policy.
In addition to the changed relationship with the West, Putin was also influenced by domestic political events. With the 2012 protests, Putin began to delve deeper into the literature of a certain mindset. There were rumors in circles close to the Kremlin that Putin was spending more and more time in archives. Around the same time, a special working group was set up in the presidential administration to put together books and selected texts on topics specified by Putin, says a former Kremlin political technologist.
Ilyin had no respect whatsoever for Ukraine as an independent state.
Ukraine is that part of Russia most threatened by secession and conquest,” the philosopher wrote in a 1938 resolution of a White Emigration Congress. “Ukrainian separatism is an artificial phenomenon that lacks any real basis. It arose from the ringleaders’ craving for recognition and an international conquest intrigue.
Quotations from speeches by Ilyin, Rozanov and other imperialist – also contemporary – authors eventually also appeared in Putin’s public speeches.
In this pantheon of gods, everything is very simple,” explains a former technologist from the Kremlin’s environment: “Ukrainians are being bred by Western states with cunning, deception, manipulation and technology to create an anti-Russia. For Russia’s enemies, they are the ideal Russians. The Ukrainian state was created inside the USSR to harm the Russian people.
How Putin Decided to Take Crimea
As recently as January 2014, Putin had no plans to annex Crimea. This is reported by three sources – one in the presidential administration, one close to the Kremlin’s political technologists and one from Putin’s inner circle. The decision came spontaneously in February, when the Kremlin realized that the protesters in central Kyiv would defeat the Yanukovych government.
On the night of February 22-23, after Yanukovych had now also fled Kharkiv, Putin made the decision to annex Crimea. This is evident from his own descriptions and is confirmed by sources close to him. In Sochi, where the Winter Olympics were just coming to an end, he held meetings until 7 a.m. with his four closest confidants from the security services. As a close acquaintance of Putin reports, they are said to have initially tried to dissuade him from his plan. “But Putin said: ‘This is our last chance, there won’t be another one, I take responsibility.'”
In early March, Russian officials began visiting Crimea and the Donbass regions bordering Russia incognito. “A deputy was sent from almost every ministry to explore the terrain,” recalls a former member of the government apparatus. In Putin’s secret order, the officials were to prepare the future “incorporation of the Ukrainian regions into Russia”. According to the ex-employee, the government documents were not just about Crimea; the costs of “joining the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv Oblasts” were also analyzed. But these ideas could not be realized at the time.
There was no strict plan to conquer these areas. Attempts to assemble rebel groups also took place in Odessa and Dnipro, among other places. But the plan only worked halfway in Donetsk and Luhansk. “That with the Donbass was a mistake. It was thought that the population in Donetsk could be mobilized in the same way as in Crimea,” reports an insider. “But the attempt to stir up the people was not particularly successful.”
He then only needed to call for the implementation of the agreement. “What was this implementation? Ukraine should enact a law on the special status of DNR and LNR and carry out constitutional reform. The republics should be formally returned to Ukraine, along with the two army corps and political bodies elected under Russian rule,” said the source directly involved in the drafting on the Russian side. “All of this should be legalized. This would mean that there would be two foreign bodies in Ukraine that would not subordinate themselves to Kiev. That is what the Minsk Agreement provided for. If it had been implemented, Donbass would have been used to rebuild all of Ukraine in its image. That was the plan.”
From Putin’s point of view – according to another source close to him – he had simply duped the then Ukrainian President Poroshenko: “First elections, then restoring control over the borders, not the other way around. So it was clear who would win in these elections. In this chaos, Poroshenko wanted to end the war, he didn’t see through the details.” The Kremlin froze the conflict. At the end of 2014, the most aggressive and militant forces in the two separatist Donbass republics were eliminated or sidelined. The presidential administration halted war rhetoric for a long time.
Putin suchte weiter hartnäckig nach Verbindungen zwischen der Ukraine und den USA. „Er war überzeugt, dass die Ukraine faktisch durch die NATO und die USA kontrolliert wird“, sagt ein Informant aus seinem damaligen Umkreis.
Why Putin felt offended by Zelensky
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky surprisingly won the presidential election. He had more diverse relationships with Russia than probably any of his predecessors. As the only Ukrainian president, he even lived in Moscow for a while when he appeared on the Russian TV show KVN. At the turn of the year 2013/2014, together with the Russian comedian Maxim Galkin, he moderated the New Year’s show on the TV channel Rossija 1.
With his campaign rhetoric that a solution had to be found with Putin and the promise of peace in Ukraine, he aroused extreme mistrust among determined opponents of any rapprochement with Russia and cautious optimism in Moscow. During the first phone call with Selensky, Putin was respectful. “You could tell that he wanted to find points of contact,” says the former head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, Andrij Bohdan.
In the conversation, Zelensky suggested making his assistant Andriy Yermak the new negotiator in the Donbass negotiations. Putin’s personal friend Viktor Medvedchuk had previously held this position. According to a source close to the Russian presidential administration, Zelensky said that Medvedchuk is “just making money, using his connections to make money.”
At the time, the Kremlin gave in and had Medvedchuk replaced.
“He [Selensky] was obviously gifted and trainable. And he went about it with the rather naïve idea that he would now have a reasonable talk with Putin about everything,” says a source close to the Russian government. “Of course he wasn’t pro-American, he was pro-Ukrainian. And he genuinely wanted to do something good.” According to three sources, Zelensky actually wanted to renew relations with Moscow. His team turned to various people for advice on how best to go about this. For example, Yermak called Alexander Voloshin, the former head of the Russian presidential administration. Putin also expected a possible agreement with Selensky. He assumed he could easily trick the political novice and finally achieve the implementation of the Minsk agreement, which would have been a major victory for Russia.
When Putin traveled to Paris in December 2019, he was certain that things would finally get moving in what had been a deadlock for years. But negotiations with Selensky turned out to be even more difficult than with his predecessor. He refused to hold elections in Donbass before border control was restored, and members of his delegation even attempted to revise the crucial paragraph of the Minsk agreement to the effect that the Donbass region should not be granted a permanent but only a temporary special status . Surkov, who took part in the peace negotiations, threatened to call them off altogether. According to a Ukrainian minister, he was about to throw his fists at Andriy Yermak, shouting and stamping his feet.
Putin had expected a warm welcome and a cold shower. “He had descended from his heights to accept Ukraine’s capitulation and now found himself in the role of the abandoned bride,” said Olexander Charebin, who had worked on Selensky’s campaign team to develop the foreign policy strategy. “Zelensky and his delegation were better prepared than expected. The great tsar of all Rus was suddenly almost a joke.” Selensky played his part in this. When Putin said at the press conference that a document on strict observance of the Minsk agreement had been adopted, Zelensky nodded his head with a smile, and at the mention of the special status he showed frank amusement, even covering his mouth to keep from laughing out loud . “It came as a surprise to everyone and was so obvious for the first time,” said Ukrainian adviser Kharebin. “It was practically a public slap for Putin. And that experience may have been traumatic for him.” He didn’t look at Selensky and leafed through his documents again and again. Zelensky and Putin have never met since, and Surkov was dismissed as envoy for Ukraine and the Donbass region two months later. After the Paris disaster, the Kremlin now relied on soft power – and its most important guarantor became Viktor Medvedchuk.
How Putin decided to go for an all-out war against Ukraine
Putin remained in contact with Medvedchuk, the former head of the presidential administration under Kuchma, even after his departure from politics. In 2012, Putin was four hours late for a meeting with then-President Yanukovych and then demonstratively paid Medvedchuk a home visit. At dinner he showed him his aqua disco – colorful fountains whose colored lighting changed to the rhythm of the music. “Professional recordings were made there, not by a paparazzi, but frankly by a personal cameraman,” TV presenter Yevgeny Kiselyov recalled in an interview with the author. Pictures of Putin and Medvedchuk were shown on Ukrainian television.
After 2014, due to his close proximity to Moscow, Medvedchuk was responsible for organizing the Trilateral Contact Group negotiations and for the prisoner exchange. Towards the end of Poroshenko’s tenure, Taras Kozak, a comrade-in-arms of Medvedchuk, acquired three TV news channels. They would later become the cause of a conflict between Medvedchuk, who was considered the true owner of the stations in Ukraine, and Zelensky.
The channels broadcast the pro-Russian views of their owners. According to media expert Otar Dovshenko, the propaganda broadcast there claimed that “there has been no attack on Ukraine, there is a civil war for which Ukraine is to blame, it only has to decide on friendship with Russia, Crimea has seceded itself, because she was not appreciated, an armed coup took place on the Maidan”. At the same time, Selensky’s policies were repeatedly criticized on these stations. Rising housing costs and social problems were a constant theme. Zelensky’s poll numbers fell, but the popularity of Medvedchuk’s party opposition platform – For Life rose. In October 2020, she took first place in regional elections in six regions, overtaking Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. Even after the full-scale war had begun, Selensky would revisit these events. In his first interview with Russian journalists, which took place at the end of March 2022 during the fighting for Mariupol, he spoke at length about how Medvedchuk was victorious in the regions.
In February 2021, a special operation to eliminate Medvedchuk was undertaken. It was directed against the channels 112 Ukraine, NewsOne and ZIK and their owner, Taras Kozak. Zelensky said the channels spread anti-Ukrainian propaganda and hindered Ukraine’s integration into the EU. They were banned from broadcasting, which was decided at a short-notice meeting of the National Security and Defense Council. At the time, the President’s Office said the three stations were being used as “instruments of foreign, foreign propaganda in Ukraine.” Mykhailo Podoliak, who advises the head of the presidential office, added that they work for the “occupiers”. At the same time, it was said that there were “questions” about the funding of the broadcasters.
A year and a half earlier, Zelensky had declared that he knew from which country they were being financed, and Ivan Bakanov, head of the Ukrainian domestic secret service SBU, had spoken of an “anti-Ukrainian information campaign by the attacking state”.
Sanctions were also imposed on Medvedchuk personally. The SBU put him and his wife on its terrorist financing research list. On March 11, 2021, the SBU and the Ukrainian tax service conducted a special operation in the facilities of the Glusco gas station network, which is also associated with the Medvedchuk family.
The crushing of Medvedchuk’s media and the “harassment” against him were the final tipping points in Putin’s decision to launch a military operation, according to three sources close to him. The Kremlin no longer relied on soft power.
“When they took away Medvedchuk’s transmitters and silenced his party, it really enraged Putin,” said a long-time acquaintance of the Russian president. “He felt personally attacked. Medvedchuk and his stations were a kind of bridgehead, they stood for the hope of a political solution to the situation. And that’s when Ukraine starts to escalate. Oh, you want to hit the drum? I guess you don’t know who you’re messing with!”
Another factor contributing to Putin’s decision was that Medvedchuk had repeatedly told him how strong his support and the pro-Russian mood in Ukraine was. “He told fairy tales, pocketed the money he received for organizing the political resistance, and didn’t think it would ever be put to the test,” recalled a source close to the presidential administration. “He told how loyal the territories were and blindly misled Putin.”
The Kremlin had no doubts about Medvedchuk’s account. “Instead of checking that and realizing that they are obviously not wanted here, they let themselves be blinded by hurt and anger,” says Ukrainian political adviser Kharebin. However, according to a source from Medvechuk’s circle of acquaintances, he could not have guessed that, based on his statements, Putin would decide to quickly replace the government in Kyiv with a small special operation. Putin seriously expected to find support throughout Ukraine, just as his confidant had told him. “For Medvedchuk, Putin’s decision to go to war was the most catastrophic development imaginable,” says someone close to the Russian president.
Before making his decision, Putin had not consulted with Medvedchuk – nor with anyone else. The only person he kept in touch with was his friend Yuri Kovalchuk. As two sources confirm, Kovalchuk played a significant role in Putin’s decision to launch the special operation. During the pandemic, he was the only one who stayed at the President’s residence continuously to avoid having to quarantine. Kovalchuk has never hidden his anti-Western attitude. He may have introduced Putin to the writers he began studying in the 2010s. As of March 2020, the two men had hours-long talks about the conflict with the West and Russia’s history, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal newspaper. The sources interviewed by Verstka also confirm this: “Putin had little contact with level-headed people at the time. He avoided encounters whenever possible, and when he did, after the two-week quarantine, people were so jaded that normal conversation was impossible. Besides, you can’t have a confidential conversation from fifteen meters away.”
According to a source close to the Kremlin, it was Kovalchuk who convinced Putin that Europe was torn by contradictions and that the timing was ideal for a quick operation.
The decision to prepare for the operation was made a year before the war began, at the end of February/beginning of March 2021. The first threatening maneuvers took place on the borders of Ukraine as early as April.
The preparation was subject to the strictest secrecy. Nevertheless, the possibility of war was already a common topic in the vicinity of the Kremlin by the summer. On June 12, 2021, Putin’s article About the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians was published on the Kremlin website. According to the information available to Verstka, the article had been amended many times. One version contained an open threat of possible military intervention, but this was not included in the final version.
According to a report by the British research institute RUSI (Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies) dated March 29, 2023, the FSB began preparing to occupy Ukraine from July 2021. For this purpose, the 9th Unit of the Department of Operational Information was transformed into a full-fledged department, and the staff was expanded from two dozen employees to over two hundred. They were divided into sections that should take care of the individual regions of Ukraine. One thematic section dealt with the Parliament of Ukraine, another with its critical infrastructure.
A source close to the presidential administration reports that at the Valdai Club meeting in October 2021, a representative of the state authorities present there confirmed in private conversations that Western fears that Russia is planning a war are not unfounded: “It is true, we want to bring about a regime change in Ukraine.” There was explicit mention of military means to achieve this political goal. According to another source, three months before the war, in December 2021, discussions were being held on how to divide Ukraine among the big corporations. In each region of Ukraine, a Russian state company or a private company close to the Kremlin should be responsible for development. A week before the invasion began, the non-public Council of Experts on Foreign and Defense Policy, an influential body close to the State Department, met. A political scientist close to the Kremlin openly stated there that a special operation would be launched in the course of the coming week to bring about a regime change in Kyiv; it won’t last long.
Indeed, Putin believed that replacing the Kyiv government would be quick and painless. Kovalchuk had convinced him of the weakness of the West, and Medvedchuk had persuaded him that Ukraine was weak and would be loyal.
A simple calculation suffices to see that no long war was prepared: “You can’t conquer a country of 44 million people with 160,000 soldiers,” marveled a source close to the political wing of the presidential administration. “Anyone who starts such an operation with so few armed forces is counting on the fact that masses of pro-Russian forces will collaborate in Ukraine. And with this assumption, the action was tackled, planned and worked out.”
The sources report that many representatives of the security organs were opposed to the invasion, as was the case with the annexation of Crimea. This is evidenced by the letter from Colonel General and Chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly Leonid Ivashov, as well as publications related to the Defense Ministry.
Defense Minister Shoigu, however, had no objection to Putin’s decision and was even pleased. “He didn’t realize the state of the army and found it interesting. He believed that Putin knew more than he did and actually thought it wouldn’t get much worse than the annexation of Crimea,” says an old friend of Putin’s. The remaining elites were presented with a fait accompli on the day of the invasion.
“It’s a strange war, practically the entire elite is against it. I talk to high-ranking people in Russia, there is no one in the top echelons of power who would be in favor of it. But they understand that they have to work as a team,” says a former Kremlin official, citing private conversations with Russian officials.
Those who do not want to understand this are made to understand that they must. According to one source, in the spring of 2022, a “senior official” in the State Duma went to see the Kremlin’s commissioner for domestic policy, Sergei Kiriyenko, and said he couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to quit. “The next day, his wife received a visit from the FSB, and uniformed men showed up at his son, who has a business. After a week, the officer went back to Kiriyenko and said he had changed his mind.” “Okay,” Kiriyenko replied with a smile, before going on to discussing day-to-day business.