If Putin manipulates the West, Ukraine will be in trouble

There was a wave of migrants on the Polish-Belarusian border, and that was a concrete element of the strategy. Poland responded very effectively to the actions of Russia and Belarus, but it is not impossible that this could happen again on the next occasion," says Professor Mark Galeotti, a British historian and political scientist.

TVP Weekly: Do you know that some politicians and political commentators still refer to the Gerasimov doctrine, [1] which is in fact a fake doctrine created by Mr. Galeotti...

Prof. Mark Galeotti:
(laugh) Right. You see, the original speech that I reported on, which I foolishly referred to as the Gerasimov Doctrine, was not really intended for people to take seriously. It was just the character talking about the Russian understanding of the West. The Kremlin still thinks that the evil West has some political technologies, some schemes that allow it to overthrow regimes that it does not like. The Arab Spring uprisings, the colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space, and so on. Instead of seeing these as natural reactions to authoritarian, corrupt regimes, the Russians have chosen to see the hand of the West, and especially CIA, behind all of this. And look, I think that's clearly nonsense, first of all, and that's the most important thing to say. The Russians are completely wrong to think that there is some sort of secret Western plan that has not been leaked to the New York Times. Second, I think it was interesting because it showed us exactly what was going on in the Kremlin. I do not think someone like Garasimov necessarily believes or cares about the Arab Spring. If the Kremlin is concerned about it, then Garasimov simply has to assure him that the military has all matters under control.

Does this mean that the Russians have no great doctrine?

Exactly. But there is a little bit of truth in it in the way the Russians clearly have considered themselves for years to be in a war with the West. A political, non-shooting war with the West. A West that is much richer and more powerful than Russia in almost all respects. What Russia does have, however, is the will and the ability to use basically all kinds of subversive methods. And like any good geopolitical guerrilla, it fights where it thinks it is strongest and we are weakest, which is in that we are democratic nations, we have disagreements between countries and the like. So the Russians came from a perspective of completely misunderstanding: they thought this was the evil Western plot, and then they thought, well, if you are going to use these techniques, we are going to do it, too. But nonetheless, the Russians hit on something that is important, especially in the modern world.

In your last book, among other things, you introduced the concept of hybrid war, an idea as old as war itself. Would Machavielli be proud of Putin?

Well, not at all. I think for two reasons. One is that Machiavelli's most famous book, The Prince, which says it's better to be feared than to be loved, if you can't be both, was written in part almost as a satire and a cautionary tale. Basically, he looked at people like the Borgias, this big, powerful, ruthless dynastic family, and more or less warned them: what could happen? But he couldn't do it directly, so he tried indirectly. But what really stands out is that, from Machiavelli's point of view, it's important to know what you're doing. Machiavelli favours not just will or ruthlessness, but above all reason. And I think that's the crucial point.

I think what we have really seen, and we see so strikingly today in this terrible war in Ukraine, are the limitations of Vladimir Putin, that this man is really not the great geopolitical thinker that some people want to portray. I think Machiavelli would say that the ultimate test is what you leave behind when you leave. And I think it's clear that Putin will leave a disastrous and toxic legacy for Russia. He has poisoned the country's relations with much of the world. He has destroyed the military apparatus that he spent more than 20 years trying to build, and he'll leave deep, deep scars on the Russian economy. So, no, I don't think Machiavelli would be proud of him.
Funeral in Volgograd of a Wagner Group mercenary killed in Ukraine. Photo: STRINGER / Reuters / Forum
But he follows the recommendations of Niccolo Machiavelli and deliberately wants to be perceived as a crazy leader...

There is such an element in this government with all the nuclear rhetoric, Putin’s frequent hints that he might go to nuclear war. And that, of course, is a very worrisome and borderline crazy technique. But the thing is that Putin is ultimately a rational actor: what is his motivation? He's motivated by power, he's motivated by wealth, but most of all he's motivated by survival. And I think that's the challenge that Putin has to face from time to time. Yes, he really likes to play that role: I'm more extreme than you, more unpredictable, which means you basically have to work around me. And for a long time, frankly, that worked to a certain extent. But it's interesting that, for example, China's President Xi Jinping was in Moscow recently and warned him very, very clearly to back away from all this talk about nuclear weapons. Yes, seeming crazy can be a useful tactic in a particular situation, but it also has dangers. And I think in this case, the Chinese essentially warned him to cool it. And it is interesting that while there are people like Dmitry Medvedev who are still making very, very bizarre and disturbing statements, Putin himself has become much more cautious on the nuclear issue since the Chinese visit. So it is a tactic, but just because he picked a particular tactic out of Machiavelli's writings, you can not call him a real Machiavellian.

As a Russia expert, what do you think will be the next steps of the war and Russia?

That's difficult, because the Ukrainians have often defied predictions. They have done so much better than expected. If you think about the same American experts who said confidently that there would definitely be a Russian invasion, most of them also said that the Russians would have won within two weeks. So we have to acknowledge that. The next steps of the war are pretty clear in broad strokes, in broad concepts, if not in detail. The Russian offensive has already largely stalled. They'll continue to advance and perhaps take more territory simply because they're willing to put a lot of people into the fight. But that won't change the overall picture of things. The most important thing is that they're already on the defensive because they know that the Ukrainians are going to launch a major counteroffensive. Even though there are concerns, particularly in Washington, about whether the Russians and the Ukrainians are really prepared for that. Nonetheless, Kyiv has to do this, and for a number of reasons.

There is domestic political pressure to act?

And most importantly, they need to show the West that this war can be won, because they need the support of the very diverse Western alliance. Because let's face it, there are countries like Poland, the Baltic States, and the United Kingdom that have made it very, very clear that they want to support Ukraine for as long as it takes. There are other European countries that have provided much, much less support, and there are even some voices, although not many, it must be said, in the United States that are also critical and say, actually, we should be pushing the Ukrainians to come to some kind of peace agreement or whatever. So in order to keep these forces in check, Ukraine needs some kind of solution. I honestly don't know what that solution will be. As I said, everybody is playing the expectations game right now. It's possible that the Ukrainians will make a big breakthrough, but we don't know. In the longer term, however, it's almost impossible to believe that Russia can really win.

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Maybe there is something that Putin proclaims as a victory?

But this won't be a real victory. The fact is that Russia has proven that it cannot expand its territories beyond those it has already conquered. I suspect that over time, while we'll see a settlement with respect to Crimea, and I think Ukraine will recapture the other occupied territories. And as I said, despite what Putin's propagandists will say, this will clearly be a defeat. Will it bring Putin down? Possibly, but that will depend on whether or not there is a major political and economic crisis at home.

But on the other hand, will it really undermine the legitimacy of the Putin system? Absolutely. If there's one thing that this system was meant for - excuse me - if there are two things that this system was meant for, it's to satisfy ordinary Russians, to give them a decent quality of life, which the Putin system did for a long time, but that's not working now. Real wages are falling, and that will continue for a long time. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the sanctions won't be lifted or whatever. The second point is the assertion of Russia's position as a great power. I think that, too, has been proven wrong. Be that as it may, even the challenges that Putin has set for himself, frankly, he is failing. And that is increasingly visible to everyone.

I know your dissertation dealt with the war in Afghanistan. Could the consequences of today's conflict be the same for the Russian Empire?

Well, in terms of the actual wars, they're clearly very different. Afghanistan was essentially a counterinsurgency war against scattered insurgents and guerrillas, whereas the war in Ukraine is a much more conventional, savage meat grinder of a war. The similarities, I think, are that the reason for the invasion of Afghanistan was more in the minds of the Russian or Soviet leadership than in reality. It was a collection of old men who couldn't understand how a country like Afghanistan could have an independent existence at all. It was more of a discussion: if it doesn't become our country, then it'll be the Americans’. And they couldn't leave it to the Americans. They had no real idea of what the war would entail, and they also ignored the advice of their own generals, who were horrified by the idea of invading Afghanistan but were outvoted. So, once again, a stupid war waged by ageing politicians who have no idea of military reality. That was the case in 1979 just as it was in early 2022.

The second commonality is that the war in Afghanistan has in no way seriously brought down the Soviet Union. It was a relatively small war; it was relatively controlled. It was other factors that brought the USSR down. But what really interested me in my research on the ground was the extent to which "Afghanistan" became a figure of speech. It became a way of talking about much broader problems. People were unhappy with the economy; they were unhappy with corruption in the party elite and so on. People were able to talk about what was happening through talking about Afghanistan. And I think that's one of the things that we're starting to see now, still at a very early stage, but with the Ukraine war: yes, when people complain about the mobilization of reservists, for example, of course they're concerned about that specific point. But it's also a way of talking about the breach of the social contract between the Kremlin and society, about the way the Kremlin gets involved in wars and then expects everyone else to pay the price, while the children of the rich and powerful manage to avoid it. I think that will be the most important point: the Ukraine war isn't only causing problems, practical, real problems, but also a way for Russians to talk about all the other things they're unhappy about.

We are very close to war, we still have some problems with Russia, but Britain? Why is your country so active on the side of the new allies?

From the British point of view, it's interesting because on one level it's not comparable to countries like Poland and Romania, which are very, very close to Russia and have had the experience of Soviet control and occupation. So in a sense, the U.K. could just sit back and think, "It's a shame, but this is somebody else's war.” But I think it's really interesting how several different processes came together to develop this very strong British position. First of all, you have to acknowledge the role of Boris Johnson, who at a very early stage was a kind of catalyst and a very effective spokesman. He may have failed in many other aspects of his tenure, but this is probably the one area where we can really say that he was absolutely successful in explaining why this war is important and why this is not just a distant problem for somebody else. Secondly, there are many echoes in British history, not least how world war II started, this idea that when a major power bullies a smaller power, it can turn into something much more serious and has to be dealt with. And I think, third, it's also about practical politics. Boris Johnson jumped on the Ukraine cause to distract from his own serious problems at home. His successors were all politically weak to some extent as well. From their point of view, this was an important issue because it shows that Britain has a role to play in the world, and even the opposition Labour Party, which has often been quite pacifist in the past, hasn't held back on this issue. In this case, we have an opposition leader, Keir Starmer, who wants to show that he and his party are ready to take power, and he's also very, very clear about the need to continue to support Ukraine because he doesn't want to look weak.
On May 15, 2023, Rishi Sunak met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at Chequers, the summer estate of British prime ministers. Photo by Carl Court / PA Images / Forum
Perhaps it's the post-Brexit attitude of the UK as a major European country?

You can certainly also include the fact that in the post-Brexit period, the UK wants to show that it's relevant again. Even though Poland is obviously rearming very quickly, the U.K. and France were essentially the two biggest military powers in Europe. Now the U.K. wants to say, look, we're not part of your political and trade bloc, but we can still be powerful friends for Europe, and we all have common interests when it comes to security. So I think all of these sentimental, historical, and pragmatic reasons come together to form, to me, a really remarkable unity. There are a few voices on the sidelines that say, oh, it's not our war, or it's all NATO's fault, or all the usual nonsense, but it's actually, I think, remarkable, the extent to which there is unanimity across the political spectrum on this issue.

Let us now turn to the events of 2014. Why was the Crimean operation so easy for the Russians and the invasion in 2022 so difficult?

It was because the conditions were perfect. They had a peninsula where Russian troops and Russian spies were already entrenched because the Black Sea Fleet was still stationed there. There was a population that, by and large, either actively wanted to be part of Russia because the quality of life was higher there at that time, or at least was very unhappy with Kyiv. In Crimea, there was a widespread feeling that Kyiv had more or less ignored them since independence. One can argue whether that is true or not, but as long as people think that, it does not really matter. So very few people were really interested, in supporting the status quo and staying under Kyiv's control. In addition, the Ukrainian state and especially the security forces had more or less collapsed after the Revolution of Dignity. The chain of command had been completely eroded. Within that chain of command, there were Russian agents. The Ukrainian government, for understandable reasons, had just disbanded its very brutal riot police, Berkut, but that meant that Berkut basically defected to the Russians. And there were a lot of them in the Crimea as well. At that time, the West was very unsure what to do. When the so-called little green men, the Russian special forces, started sealing off Ukrainian bases in Crimea and capturing administrative buildings, a lot of fuss was made about the fact that they did not wear badges. Now this is really nothing new. Special forces often do not go into battle wearing their insignia. But when the Russians actually just lied and said they had nothing to do with them, that caught the West off guard. All these alternative scenarios were brought into play - "Oh, are these mercenaries? Is this an unofficial action by the Black Sea Fleet? - rather than just accepting the simplest answer, which is that the Russians were lying. After all, it would not be the first time. But secondly, I think in many Western capitals, there was an active desire not to see the Russian hand there. The advice that Kyiv received from the Americans was basically, stay calm, do not call on your troops to resist. Let us wait and see how everything develops. For all these reasons, I think it was a textbook operation. There is nothing to dispute about that. But it was also an operation where all the circumstances pointed in the direction of Moscow. And I think that's why you cannot expect to repeat that success. But Putin got an exaggerated picture of what his forces and his hybrid war techniques could do, and he got overconfident.

Your book, just published in Poland, has a different title "Everything is war" (instead of the original English title "The weaponization of everything"). At the beginning of the 21st century, the Kremlin has begun to change the definition of war?

I don't think the Russians created anything. But I think the Russians were the first to recognise some of the realities of war in the 21st century. And let's be quite honest: The lesson we can learn from this war is that the Russians were more effective when they didn't send troops, more or less up until the time of the invasion. In a sense, Putin was winning against Ukraine. As soon as he invaded, he started losing. But it's also a reflection of the Russian system. I have called Putin's regime an adhocracy because people's power doesn't really depend on what formal job they have or whatever. It depends on how useful Putin finds them today, which may well be different from how he finds them tomorrow, and what he wants from them today, which again may be different from what he wants from them tomorrow.

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Prigozhin is a classic example. This is a man who isn't really part of Putin's inner circle, but Putin has known him for a long time, and he's successful because he basically does everything that the Kremlin asks him to do. He's one of the Kremlin's favourite businessmen. So when they needed someone to run troll farms to disrupt the U.S. political process at the time of the Trump election, Prigozhin did that. Later when they wanted mercenary troops in the Donbas, Prigozhin did that, too. And then Prigozhin hired mercenaries in Syria as part of his network of hundreds of companies doing all kinds of things. But basically, he's doing what the Kremlin wants him to do. And the interesting thing is that his mercenaries, the Wagner Group, were less about hiding this from the outside world. We knew who the Wagner Group was, we knew who was paying them. It was more about the Kremlin being able to deny its role, especially in Syria, to the Russian people. Syria was a war that the Russians weren't really excited about. It was sold to them as a sort of long-range techno-war, where the Russians would just send some planes to bomb the rebels who had no air defences. But when Moscow realized that it would have to send ground troops, and that would mean people would be killed, they realized that the citizens wouldn't be happy if it was regular Russian troops. So they used Wagner to hide from their own society what they were doing in Syria: it's primarily about lying to their own Russian population. Wagner is so important in Ukraine because the Russians simply don't have enough troops. That's one of their main problems, that they don't have enough ground troops. And if Prigozhin can get people from prison camps or impoverished people from far-flung parts of the Russian Federation to sign up as mercenaries, well, that's fine. That's just the way the Russian system works. It doesn't really care about public and private, legal and illegal; all these distinctions don't matter. It's all about what we need today and how we can best get it. And that's where someone like Prigozhin comes in.

So it was an interesting episode of your podcast when you examined the Russian Constitution and the fact that mercenary troops aren't legal.

The Russian constitution seems to prohibit mercenaries. And there is also an article in the Russian Criminal Code against mercenarism, which in theory would mean that Prigozhin should have already gone to prison for many years. But as I said, this is the Russian state. Putin's regime has a strange kind of facade of legalism. He likes to make it look like he's obeying the law, and so he's going to change the Constitution so he can stand again for the presidence and so on. But in practise, this is old-style monarchical authoritarianism. Whatever Putin wants, will be done, without regard to the law and the Wagner Group is a case in point. There is a lot of conflicting information about them, but they were originally set up as a company outside Russia. Their financial flows go through other elements of the Concord business empire, so it's very, very difficult to trace where the money is coming from. It's just a matter of maintaining deniability, a little bit like money laundering. For gangsters, the purpose of money laundering isn't so much to make people believe that the illegal money is legal, but to prevent anyone from proving that it's illegal. I think it's similar with Wagner: the Kremlin simply wants to try and make it difficult for people to know for sure what it is, what it is doing, and whether or not it is actually illegal.

Criminalization of war has become dangerous, but not so much for Ukraine, but for Russians themselves.

We have already had cases of criminals who were recruited from labor camps to serve in Wagner, served their six months, then received amnesty and went home and committed atrocious crimes. So that is already the case, just as we're seeing an increase in the crime rate because weapons are being stolen and then sold on the black market in Russia. But what this whole thing shows is that Putin's regime didn't really see organized crime as a problem from the beginning and instead developed the idea of getting along with the gangsters. For most of the Putin regime, these agreements more or less served to define the things that the gangsters shouldn't do. Don't mess with the wrong people, don't have 1990s-style gang wars in the streets, because that makes it seem like the state isn't in control - those kinds of things. And as long as you stay within those boundaries, the police will still try to catch you, but we're not going to treat you as a real target.

What we've seen recently, since about 2011, is that the state is increasingly actively approaching gangsters and saying, "Not only do we want you not to do this, we actively want you to do something else”. We saw that in the use of hackers, we saw that in the use of gangsters flexing their muscles in the annexation of Crimea, we saw that in the use of gangsters leading militias in the undeclared war in the Donbas, all these things. And I think this is going to be a growing problem. We can see the apparent criminalization of war, the use of convicts, and the use of horrendously brutal methods that will haunt Russia for a long time to come. But we also see an ever closer alliance between the state and organized crime. It's fascinating, for example, to see the extent to which gangs that deal in people and drugs are now smuggling into Russia the microchips that are needed for military production of precision weapons. And it seems to be the case - we can't say for sure, but this seems to be the approach - that in return for not stopping the trafficking of drugs and people, the Russian state is in effect taxing the gangsters, so to speak, in the form of microchips or other things that the state wants. So it's a constantly evolving and tightening alliance that I think will have a very negative long-term impact on Russia as a whole.
August 2021. a group of migrants camped on the Polish-Belarusian border near the village of Usnarz Górny near Krynki in the Sokol district. Photo: PAP/Artur Reszko
Anyway, the deal with the gangsters is quite effective. Just look at the Polish-Belarusian border.

There was a point when Lukashenka really wanted to make trouble for Poland and the West. The Russians were very happy to help him do that. And then there was this sudden wave of migrants pouring across the border. That was a particular tactic at a particular time. I don't see any reason to believe that if they see another opportunity that they think is useful, they'll not take it. However, it has to be said that Poland has responded very robustly to both Belarus and Russia and has taken a whole range of measures to protect itself. For example, the Polish police are taking preventive action against organised crime groups that aren't only Russian but also simply connected to Russians, because that is often the crux of the matter. After all, it's not really Russian gangsters who are selling drugs on the street, but local gangsters. But where do they get their drugs? Ultimately, it's the Russians who are procuring them. So these are the people that we have already seen Poland proactively target to try to limit Russia's scope to use them as instruments. But yes, the Russians will continue to look for opportunities that come their way. And if you think about it, Lukashenka in Belarus is still trying to maintain his independence as much as possible. He's not a total puppet of Moscow, but he has to compromise. We've seen, for example, that he didn't want to use his army in Ukraine because the military is very, very much against it. Instead, he offers his training camps so that Russian troops can be trained in Russian bases in Belarus and attack across the border,. So that is sort of a constant compromise. So I think that in this situation, if Putin is asking Lukashenka to do something that would be short of an NATO Article Five reason for war, I can't imagine Lukashenka would say no.

A harrowing experience is how several dozen hackers divided societies in the West.

I think that's how these campaigns work. There is no magic mind control that can change someone who was hostile to Putin to a fan. What they do, rather, is seek out existing fault lines within societies and between countries and try to reinforce them, radicalize them, in a way. This is a problem that we all face, particularly because where the Russians go today, somebody else could go tomorrow, the Chinese or whoever. It is not a technique unique to Russia. It is just that the Russians are particularly active in this right now. So they are going to try to do everything they can to increase the tensions that exist. For example, those who say, oh, my God, we have to force the Ukrainians to make peace because we are afraid that we are going to be dragged into a war, look at what happened when that missile hit a village near the border. It could be worse than that. Or those who are worried about Putin's nuclear rhetoric. People who have long been anti-American and tend to believe that CIA is the root of all evil. Such people also tend to believe that the Ukraine problem was created by the expansion of NATO and all this other nonsense. The Russians just want to cause trouble. They want to create division. In the United States, they like to support the most extreme ends of the Black Lives Matter movement, just like they support the most extreme ends of the white supremacist movement. They do not care about the actual causes at all. This is a completely ideology-free campaign: left or right, anarchist or authoritarian, secessionist or statist, they will simply support anyone who helps open up some of the fault lines that we find in the West. Because what I see as our strength, which is the fact that we are a collection of democracies, they see as our weakness, and that is in some ways the battleground on which they hope to do this, because that is the only way Putin can win in Ukraine. If he succeeds in catching the West off guard and breaking our will to continue to support Ukraine, then Ukraine will be in trouble. So I believe that he will not win the war on the battlefield. If he wants to win it, he has to win it in the West.

We know what the Prigozhin movers and shakers have done in Europe, but perhaps we aren't aware of how they influence public opinion in third world countries?

It's surreal in some ways how Russia is portraying its war in Ukraine, a thoroughly imperial war, as an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist war, saying, ''The Americans used the Ukrainians to try and bring us to our knees and accept their rule, and we're fighting back.'' In many countries that have had their experience of colonialism at the hands of the British, the French, the Dutch, or whoever, and who see the Americans as economic imperialists, it's easy to see that this is actually a tempting line of argument.

We're at a time when the developing world, the global South, is starting to really connect to the Internet. Cheap smartphones are starting to proliferate, they're being used for micropayments and all sorts of other things. And the Russians are using this as an opportunity. So on the one hand, they're doing business with authoritarian rulers to sell them cheap energy or guns, but at the same time, they're also trying to reach out to the grassroots population and spread their own toxic propaganda through social media. So in that regard, while there will still be room for old-fashioned wars, the interconnectedness created by the Internet, which now spans the entire planet, provides all kinds of dangerous opportunities for different kinds of conflicts and wars. And that was sort of the real point of this part of the book.

– interviewed by Cezary Korycki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

Fot. Robert Gardzinski / Forum
Professor Mark Galeotti is an expert in modern Russia, especially its security politics, intelligence services and criminality. As well as running the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, he is an Honorary Professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a Senior Non-Resident Fellow of the Institute of International Relations Prague, and an Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy.

A prolific author, his most recent books include Putin’s Wars (Bloomsbury, 2022), The Weaponisation of Everything (Yale, 2021), We Need To Talk About Putin (Penguin, 2019) and The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia (Yale, 2018).

He read history at Robinson College, Cambridge, and took his doctorate in politics at the London School of Economics. He has been Head of History at Keele University, Professor of Global Affairs at New York University, a visiting professor at Rutgers-Newark (Newark), Charles University (Prague) and MGIMO (Moscow), and a senior research fellow at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He has advised and given evidence to a wide range of bodies, from the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to Interpol and SHAPE.

[1] Gerasimov doctrine' - invented and described on a blog by Professor Mark Galeotti's alleged new war doctrine of the Russian Federation. It would include principles of war, covering, among other things, non-military actions. Although in reality this doctrine does not exists, it is referred to by political commentators and politicians, including in Poland, such as the former head of the Interior Ministry, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, who analyses it in his article 'What the West does not understand, or the The Gerasimov Doctrine'. The doctrine also has its own entry in the Polish Wikipedia.
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