Mychailo Wynnyckyj: Imminent Invasion Still Possible

Mychailo Wynnyckyj’s article “10 reasons that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is possible before winter”, published last week, has caused some intense debate. Many are criticizing the article for excessive pessimism. This reaction is natural and understandable – Ukrainians and those who sympathize with them do not want the country to become the object of an even bigger attack by Russia, do not want Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk or other towns and villages to be bombarded.

A few days after the article was published, the New Pathway asked the article’s author whether he had changed his mind. From the interview below, it is clear that he has not. In this interview, Mr. Wynnyckyj responded to the criticism of his position. It is up to the readers to judge whether his answers are convincing. But Mychailo Wynnyckyj agrees with his critics about one thing – he wants to be wrong, and wants Ukraine to achieve peace, even a fragile and short one.

NP: The biggest criticism of your article, where you said that Putin will step up his attack on Ukraine in the near future, was in the economic sphere. The critics are saying that if this happens, the West will impose even greater sanctions.

MB: The fundamental problem is that we interpret Putin’s motives within the economic paradigm. Putin absolutely does not care about the economy or that Russians are suffering from economic sanctions. This is the biggest miscalculation of the West, which is convinced that economic pressure on Putin can stop him. On the contrary, sanctions only make him angrier and more radical.

NP: What about the reaction of the Russian oligarchs to the sanctions? Putin is helping the oligarchs by funding them through the state budget even at the expense of everyone else. Could that be a solution to the situation – press the oligarchs?

MB: In January this year, during the Maidan Revolution, we talked a lot about how the oligarchs can topple Yanukovych. The oligarchs did not topple Yanukovych, they were the last to abandon Yanukovych and only did so when it became unbearable, when people started to die. And even when Yanukovych ran away, Tigipko did not dare to appear in the Rada, and Akhmetov was still Yanukovych’s ally.

So, do not expect that the oligarchs will rise up against Putin. There is a lot of hope currently about that, but it’s not realistic for a simple reason that oligarchs do not trust each other and thus cannot create a conspiracy. As soon as one of them approaches another, they would immediately tell Putin.

NP: Any hopes for a Russian Maidan?

MB: Russian society is currently in about the same condition as the Ukrainian one was in 2001, during the “Ukraine without Kuchma” protests. And there is much more that needs to develop in terms of opposition for it to become a real threat to Putin.

NP: If there is no hope for stopping the war from within Russia, could external factors help? Russia is currently officially involved in the negotiations on the ceasefire and delimitation of the neutral zone. Would Russia attack Ukraine during these negotiations? Would it completely ruin Russia’s global position?

MB: The West is not going to do anything in this situation other than economic pressure. Furthermore, in the short run, Europe will not stop buying natural gas from Russia. Without Russian gas, many European countries will not survive the winter. Even during the worst times of the Cold War, Europe was buying gas from the Soviet Union.

If you take the oil and natural gas together, they make up 80% of the Russian state budget’s revenue. Shares of oil and gas in this are approximately equal. If Russian oil revenues dwindle due to falling oil prices and sanctions, revenues from natural gas will remain. Russia already has serious budget problems. But Putin is not afraid of his people.

This is the same thing that happened during the reign of Yanukovych. Its representatives in unofficial conversations did not show any concern about the population decrease, that the youth and the middle class were fleeing Ukraine. For them, it was even better – easier to manage a smaller number of people and a smaller number of intellectuals. Accordingly, Russia’s state budget will be enough to provide some minimal support for the poor. The middle class will be unhappy, but they are already unhappy, and the Russian government may put restrictions on Internet usage. So the middle class will be fleeing Russia, to the joy of the Russian government. This will all pose significant challenges to Putin in the medium term, but in short term, he has a very large margin of stability.

NP: Now, let’s talk about Ukraine. Does the Ukrainian government understand the dangers of an imminent attack, which you are talking about? Recently, President Poroshenko said that the fourth wave of mobilization is unnecessary.

MB: Maybe it is unnecessary. Maybe what we need now is not more untrained people with weapons. A new wave of mobilization would increase the number of untrained people. The question now is weapons and training. Now almost all the military industry of Ukraine is working in three shifts, military exercises are occurring 14-16 hours a day.

Publicly, Poroshenko is talking about peace, because he has to talk about peace. It was a condition of support from the IMF and the EU. However, we are intensely and professionally preparing to repel the aggressor.

I hope I am wrong and the attack will not happen now. In this case, Ukraine will have six months of relative calm, and during this time you can do a lot in terms of reforms and training the army. This winter in Ukraine will be cold, so it is better not to have a war now, but Putin is aware of this too.

NP: Poroshenko’s Peace Plan and the law about municipal elections on the occupied territories, which looked somewhat utopian, are largely the result of the demands from the West?

MB: Yes. And secondly, Ukraine was in a great need after the tragedy at Ilovajsk to get better prepared for war with the regular Russian army. In Ukraine at the time when Yanukovych fled there was no army, and in the six months after that it was a great feat to rebuild it. Still, we needed the pause because Russia had more than ten years to rebuild their army. Is a one-month pause long enough? I don’t think so. Better to have another six months of peace. And I think this is what Poroshenko is counting on. But Putin knows that too.

NP: The boundaries of the occupied territories, which are within Ukraine, are now guarded by Ukrainian border guards – it seems very symbolic. Has Ukraine lost hope for a speedy return of those territories?

MB: Yes, it has, but it is very difficult from a political point of view. The relatives of dead Ukrainian soldiers may ask – what they have they fought and died for? This is basically exchanging territory for peace, and this peace is fragile enough as it is because it is being broken by the other side 20-30 times a day and the area controlled by the terrorists is constantly expanding. So I am very skeptical about this peace, but, again, I hope I am wrong.

NP: Also, there are many reports about planned exchanges of territories. Is this true?

MB: So far these are just reports, but the territory controlled by Ukraine is changing as we speak. Michael Bociurkiw from Canada, spokesman for the OSCE in Ukraine, said that during the talks in Mariupol on the 30-kilometer neutral zone, Russians and Russian OSCE representatives are insisting that Mariupol must be in the neutral zone. Ukraine insists that the neutral zone should be east of Mariupol. This city is very important – there is a huge metallurgical and transportation hub, 500 thousand people, and in recent months it has become a Ukrainian symbol. So now it is undecided, but I am convinced that we will see active fighting, perhaps even by the end of October, and no OSCE mission will help.

The West is still looking at this war as a regional conflict. But if you look at it as Putin’s war with the West, we must analyze it from prospective of the 1939-1940 years. During Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939, there were a lot of missions and the West guaranteed the security of Poland. But Germany was not really at war along its Western Front until the summer of 1940. That is almost a year in which the West waited for Hitler to attack France. I think we are now on the threshold of another 1939. What has happened so far is the equivalent of the Anschluss of Austria (Crimea) and the Sudetenland (Donbas). No large-scale attack on Warsaw yet. I am most afraid of what may be a verbal agreement between Putin and the West as to the division of Ukraine, a sort of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. If such a pact exists, airstrikes on Kyiv are likely.

NP: But if we talk about the year 1940, a further attack on the West, Russia currently is not Germany in 1940. Russia is a poorly managed economy, this comparison with Germany is hardly correct.

MB: I think that Putin would be very happy if he retains this “Novorossia”. He will let Kyiv remain with the West, this does not scare him. The maximum amount of land that Putin wants to seize is the land strip to the Dnipro River –to ensure a connection with Crimea. I think he understands that he will not get to Transnistria. I think he considers it a realistic plan in which he could continue to sell energy to the West because the West would not have a choice. If Europe starts to give up on Russian natural gas, Putin will start to sell gas to China.

NP: But the recently signed contract with China is allegedly disadvantageous for Russia?

MB: This not known and there are many questions about it, but this strategy may give some positive results for Putin.

NP: What could derail a worst-case scenario of large-scale imminent air strikes on Ukrainian cities?

MB: Putin may give in to the economic pressure. Or he just may be satisfied with those areas that he has already grabbed, and the fact that he has created a frozen conflict in Ukraine, which can always be used as leverage to not let Ukraine join NATO and the EU.

If this happens, parliamentary elections will be held in October. If the winter is not too cold, Ukrainian natural gas reserves should be enough, Ukraine will buy gas from Norway and other countries. Children will not go to school in January, we already know that the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy will not work in January and February. But we will be able to prepare for the future.

NP: A question about elections: why are there advertisements for The Opposition Bloc in Donetsk? Are they going to hold elections together with the rest of Ukraine?

MB: It’s still unclear. Perhaps even the DNR are unclear of what will happen. There are different scenarios: they can hold elections, and then say, why doesn’t Ukraine and the world recognize them? It would be a propaganda move. The second scenario – not to hold elections in those areas and then say that without those areas the elections are illegitimate.

NP: In terms of elections in the rest of Ukraine: the criticism of President Poroshenko is growing for the lack of reforms, the appointment of former people for different positions, and talks about the third Maidan have intensified.

MB: I categorically reject the talk of a third Maidan. This does not mean that Poroshenko should not be criticized. There are some things that are problematic at best. At the same time, it is necessary to understand that the Poroshenko Bloc is undoubtedly the election leader with a rating of 27%, and the next is Lyashko’s party – about 7%. In such circumstances, all the attention will be on Poroshenko’s flaws, and rightly so, but the barrage of criticism is largely because of politics. The lack of reform currently is largely due to a lack of time. I have participated in the drafting of bills and I know that 2-3 months to develop and adopt a law through this Parliament is not enough. The next Rada will pass reforms and, currently, a lot it is out of sight. Moreover, the pro-Russia parties probably will not pass the threshold, perhaps some of these kinds of politicians will be elected in the East, but there will be very few of them in the new Rada.