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The public discussion with the modern Ukrainian intellectual Vitaliy Portnikov, organized by the Institute of Central European Strategy and moderated by writer Andrii Lyubka, took place in Uzhhorod as part of the Re:Open Ukraine initiative. Here we wrote down the points that our editorial considered most important and relevant, including the answers to the questions asked by the event’s moderator and listeners.
Which generation of Ukrainians can bring this war to an end?
The construction of a real, non-Soviet Ukraine will begin in 2042-2045. That’s when the generation born in 2007 will enter their adulthood. They’ve gone to schools already devoid of Russian civilizational influence after the Maidan and the occupation of Crimea and Donbas, when it became clear that Russia is not «a brotherly nation.»
It is also important to look to the east and ask: «Which generation of Russians will not consider Ukraine a part of historical Russia?». It’s easy to answer. In 1939, the territories of Poland and Finland were perceived as the territories of historical Russia. It took 70 years for the Russians to stop perceiving them as their own.
We have already lived 30 years, 40 more to go. That is, it will happen around 2062. The most dangerous phase is the years 2045-2062 because we will no longer have a post-Soviet population, while Russia will still have a part of the post-chauvinist population. If we manage to survive until 2065, we can assume that the Ukrainian issue will be resolved in our favour. If not, then it will be in favour of Russia. Let’s hope that we’ll win because we have all the prerequisites for this.
Was this war really inevitable?
To answer this question, it is necessary to analyze the situation from the declaration of independence and the beginning of the construction of an independent state. In 1991, there was a consensus regarding the creation of our own state, although Kyiv, Uzhhorod, Lviv and Donetsk saw it differently. Residents of Odesa and Donetsk were more friendly to Russia, while Lviv or Uzhhorod leaned toward the West. In Odesa and Donetsk, they were more ready to vote for pro-Russian forces, in Lviv and Uzhhorod – for pro-European ones.
But for Russia, this state always seemed like a temporary phenomenon. There was a rather simple concept: «In order not to be disturbed by these conservative anachronistic societies, run by the communists, we let go of the union republics, carry out economic reforms and take them back, because «this is all historical Russia».
That is why the Commonwealth of Independent States was created as a quasi-state in 1991. So while our leadership, headed by Leonid Kravchuk, introduced its own currency, and the military leadership of the districts in Ukraine took the oath – Moscow under the democratic Yeltsin and Gaidar perceived it as treason, a betrayal of the agreements in Bialowieza Forest.
They conducted a special operation to elect Leonid Kuchma as president. However, Kuchma turned out not to be what they thought he was: being ready to meet Russia, he did not want to build a common state with it. That’s why the well-known series of special operations began, which eventually led to the appearance of Yanukovych.
Ukraine’s entry into the single economic space with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan disrupted the first Maidan. In 2010, they took revenge, Russian agents practically destroyed Ukrainian state institutions. All of them – from Viktor Yanukovych to the last clerks – were spies in Moscow and ended up there.
Didn’t you really notice that the Ukrainian state didn’t exist as such until 2014? But it was thwarted by the second Maidan. Then they [Russians] began to act more decisively, with signals – not to us, but to the West: «If you don’t understand that this is our territory, then we will turn Ukraine into a disabled state.» The West did not understand them, so after Crimea, the Russians attacked Donbas. The most surprising thing is that the Ukrainian population also didn’t understand these signals, continuing to sincerely believe in a possible agreement with Putin because he was allegedly «offended». Probably two-thirds of the population of Ukraine did not understand the real reasons for the Russian attack and the fact that for Russia, there is no Ukrainian state. Russia did not understand that Ukrainian citizens do not realize this.
Since 2019, the war has become inevitable. Different people voted for Zelenskyi, but among them, there were definitely not those who believed that the Ukrainian state should be dismantled.
In Moscow, they came to a completely different conclusion: «The party of capitulation has finally defeated the party of war and Ukraine is ours.» When the new Ukrainian president arrived in Paris, it turned out that he was not going to capitulate to Putin. So they came up with a new thesis, as false as the previous one: «Zelensky was afraid of the nationalists and betrayed his voters.»
After that, the war could not be avoided. Putin is guided by the logic of special operations. For him, it’s named exactly like this, not war. It should be understood that Putin did not intend and does not intend to fight with anyone. He plans to win with the help of a special operation because he knows nothing else. He relies on the idea: «We are introducing troops. If Zelensky is afraid of nationalists, then he will definitely be afraid of Russian tanks and run away. And the Ukrainians will shower them with flowers. They are waiting for us because they voted against the nationalists.»
Putin believes that the Russian army is coming to liberate Ukrainians. Although this is a delusion, Moscow was guided by exactly this logic. Therefore, it was inevitable, because a number of Ukrainian electoral decisions are misinterpreted in Russia. And the special services in the Kremlin can hardly tell the truth to Putin.
When the issue of Montenegrin independence was being decided, the president wanted to declare it, but the European Union and NATO restrained him because they did not want democratic Serbia to lose access to the sea and economic resources.
In Russia, there was a discussion whether Karadzic should be helped. I then had a meeting with Russian political technologists, with people who wrote reports for Putin. He told them: «As soon as Montenegro becomes independent, there will be a single port on the entire coast that is not controlled by NATO. Djukanovich will get such political opportunities that he never had in his life.» The political technologists agreed, but Putin said that the Serbs should be punished for betraying Milosevic and handing him over to The Hague. And depriving them of access to the sea will be a good punishment. Therefore, contrary to the Western position, the Russians helped Djukanovich with the declaration of Montenegrin independence. As soon as becaming independent, it immediately went to NATO, to Europe, while Serbia ceased to be democratic. It turned out that the Russians punished their own allies.
What is the difference then? Can partial mobilization indicate that the Russian authorities has heard the military?
I can tell you what the difference is between the special services and generals. It was clearly demonstrated by General Zubanov, who said from the rostrum of the State Duma: «We don’t have a special operation, this is a war, and we have to win this war.» This is the position of generals and Soviet politicians. At the same time, the special services have the following logic: «We conduct various special operations that have a final goal. A special operation cannot be won or lost, only ended and a new one started.»
Partial mobilization is a new special operation to speed up the holding of «referendums» for the declaration of «independence» of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia regions of Ukraine and their annexation to Russia. They perceive it that way. It should be accompanied by a sufficient number of resources to ensure access to the administrative borders of these regions.
Putin has been to Samarkand, where he was told that the war must be ended. So he decided how to do it quickly: cut off a piece of territory from Ukraine and create a bridgehead for a new attack on it. This, from his point of view, is a quick completion of the previous special operation. Now he is conducting a new one and the mobilization must provide the resources for it. He has such a simple way of thinking, there is nothing complicated about it.
You have lived in Russia for a long time. Can partial mobilization cause social discontent, or a growing opposition?
The Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan contributed to the discontent, but it only erupted into reality when the authorities did not allow it to manifest itself. In the kitchens, people will discuss it, but we see that there was not much protest. Everyone says that they are very afraid, but I wonder what to be afraid of. When you can be taken to the army, where you will die? Or if you go out to protest, you will be imprisoned for a year or two, but you’ll remain alive. When people are so afraid of the system, they will be brave only when the system allows them to do so, and this is a purely Soviet way of thinking. So the majority will try to simply run away, and it’s easier to do from Russia than it used to be from the Soviet Union.
Is mobilization important in this war? Is this a formality, a continuation of the course or evidence of further escalation?
This is an important decision that demonstrates the impossibility of fulfilling the previous plan. Now they need to go to the administrative borders of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions and join Russia according to the results of «referendums». It turns out that they can be conducted even if Russia does not control a large part of those areas. This indicates a change of plan.
Mobilization had to be announced, but Putin did not want to do it. However, now, it’s a certain end of the social contract, according to which the war has been televised until now. Currently, it turned out that the Russians are its participants. Participants in defeats, not viewers of «victories».
Another question is: what will be the consequences? This decision demonstrates Putin’s willingness to continue special operations, the fact that he still lives by a distorted logic and is not going to back down. This is a problem for us, but it’s predictable since nothing happens that has not happened before.
Can a miracle happen, like a planned coup in Russia? Would its policy change then?
Why should the government there change at all? Putin partly represents the secret police’ clan that has been in power since the early 1930s. Genrich Yagoda lost this war and became a participant in another demonstration process. Yezhov and Beria also lost to the party apparatus and were executed.
The real revenge took place in 1991, and they managed to consolidate power in 2000. Then they banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but kept the FSB, whose representatives now rule Russia – not only Putin, but also Patrushev, Sechin, and Kozak.
Indirect descendants of the state security system, like Medvedev, are much more dangerous and thoughtless than the secret police. Therefore, sometimes you want them to continue to hold power, not to hand it over to others from Putin’s entourage. If Medvedev were the president now, we would have been living in a state of nuclear war for a long time – not only with Ukraine, but also with the USA.
Will the secret police be able to hand over power if Putin does not step down, and to whom? I don’t think this will change the nature of the criminal state.
If the mobilization causes criticism of Putin, will the voices of the hawks sound louder than the voices of Navalny’s supporters? The first say: «The de-occupation of Ukrainian territories in the Kharkiv region does not speed up the victory, but leads to further escalation.» What will the Ukrainian victory look like in this case?
Any liberation of Ukrainian territories leads to further escalation of the situation, and the more we liberate, the greater it will be. If we liberate everything and say about it on September 25, 2023, then on the 26th, we will have a missile attack on Kyiv, Kharkiv or Dnipro.
Why should they calm down? What are they risking? The formula for victory in this war is one and obvious: we must liberate as much territory as we can and join the North Atlantic Union. This will end the military period of our confrontation with Russia and we will continue to fight politically, economically, and subversively – mere without war.
Should we think about the collapse of Russia or the creation of a shield over Ukraine?
We need to think not about what will happen in Russia, but how to protect ourselves from it. If we become members of NATO, we can no longer be interested in Russia. Just like Poles or Czechs are not interested in it: Russia can only confuse them.
Well, there will be some war between Russia and Kazakhstan or a conflict in it, we will accept refugees. If their nuclear power plant explodes, we will try to evacuate our population from their territories. It will be around, but we will live as normal neighbours, not as victims of a Russian attack.
We cannot think all the time that something will happen to Russia and it will get better, we cannot live in reactive history. Our statehood in the last hundred years is a reactive history. Let’s imagine that Putin is not such an idiot as he appeared. The Maidan ends, and Russian Foreign Minister, «comrade» Lavrov, arrives in Kyiv and says: «Well, it’s too bad that you expelled Yanukovych, but you need national unity.» In this way, a conditional «party of peace and goodness» would be formed, which could receive all 65% in our parliamentary elections.
When Russia attacked, we tried to demonstrate full tolerance, we even introduced the famous slogan «Lviv speaks Russians». And now, try to write a similar statement at the Lviv city hall and see how many hours you will spend in the glorious city.
When I walk through Lviv and talk on the phone, I am sometimes stopped and asked: «Mr Vitaliy, why do you speak Russian?». I am not talking about Kyiv or Kharkiv, where they behaved differently and closed the way for the political prospects of pro-Russian forces.
How many people voted for pro-Russian forces, and the Russians then wiped them off the face of the earth? And what if they didn’t do it?
Let’s assume that Russia started not with missile attacks, but with a slow advance in Donbas. This is another special operation, not designed for a blitzkrieg in Kyiv, but more realistic, for the restoration of the territorial integrity of the «DNR» and «LNR», for which, as I understand, the authorities in Kyiv were preparing.
How would it end if we were ready for peace agreements and negotiations a few weeks after the start of the war because we understood that we were being destroyed? At what stage of state development would we be now without what happened in Bucha?
We see the reaction to the fact that we are dealing with idiots and beasts. And if they were not like that, then we could become part of the Russian Federation? Are we disturbed by the fact that they are beasts or by the fact that we are building our state? Why are we building it? To be a refuge for Ukrainians or not to live with Russians?
And what if Nemtsov was the president of Russia now? There would be a «beautiful» president who fully corresponded to the Ukrainian idea of statehood. What if the Russians chose Alla Pugacheva? You don’t think that she would be less professional than Zelenskyi. She, too, could be a wonderful president and would definitely not bomb us. She would go out, and we would all sing her songs. But does this mean that we should enter into an alliance with Russia?
We have to answer ourselves: what do we need, do we want to be Ukrainians? I don’t understand why you need to want to be Ukrainian after a rocket falls on your head. Jews also became Jews en masse after the Holocaust. When, in the early 1930s, Zionist leaders came to German Jews and asked: «Don’t you think it’s a little dangerous here?», they heard the answer: «But you are provincial Jews from some Poland or Hungary, why have you come?». So didn’t they see it then? No, because they didn’t want to. I don’t blame anyone, especially the entire nations, but maybe it’s time to draw conclusions and want to be yourself. We can do it!
Do you remember the history surrounding the Bulgakov Museum? I have nothing against this institution, but we always say: «Ukrainian culture is this and that. Gogol, who wrote in Russian, of course, is our. And Bulgakov is from Kyiv, he is a Ukrainian writer.»
You can’t do that! You can’t look at it provincially. Why don’t they have basic respect for us? Don’t they understand that Ukrainian culture is not just a vocation, but a choice, especially when it comes to words? All those who worked in the field of Ukrainian culture were bilinguals who could do the same in other languages: Taras Shevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka – in Russian, Olha Kobylyanska – in German, Ivan Franko – in Polish. In the Soviet era, everyone you read in Ukrainian could write in Russian. But they made a choice to be with this people. Not even all figures of Ukrainian culture are ethnic Ukrainians.
Now, they tell us: «Thank you, but we want what was written in another language. Bulgakov, Gogol, Ilf and Petrov are more talented and famous than you.» Of course, they are more famous, because more people speak Russian, this is a different market. And they say to us: «Then we will honor them, and you stand on the sidelines with your Ukrainian.» Actually, it’s not very comfortable. Because when you make this choice in your youth, you make it not just for yourself, but for the sake of this language, culture, country and people, who later want to attract more popular people to you.
We need to stop looking at things reactively. Stop thinking what will happen to us when something happens to Russia. There is the Pacific Ocean, they swim in it somewhere – so let it be like that. We need to protect ourselves from them, their eternal bathing and stop paying attention to them.
End of the first part
Photo: Natalia Radchenko and Daria Davydenko/Apostrophe
Translated by Vitalii Holich
Full or partial republication of the text without the consent of the editors is prohibited and will be considered a violation of copyright.
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