Interview: Putin Has Not Given Up On Erasing Ukraine 'As A State, A Concept, And A People'

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a military parade on Victory Day in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9.

Nataliya Bugayova is a nonresident fellow at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think tank focused on military affairs through the lens of U.S. strategic objectives.

She is the author of multiple publications on the Kremlin’s worldview and the geopolitics of Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine and a frequent commentator on those and related topics.

Bugayova is also director of strategic intelligence at Babel Street Data, an analytics and intelligence company, and served as an adviser to a Ukrainian economy minister after the country’s Euromaidan unrest.

Bugayova spoke with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service recently about Western actions to support Ukraine in its current war, possible paths to a durable peace, and the “existential and inescapable” reality shaping Ukrainians’ will to fight.

RFE/RL: In a recent ISW backgrounder that you co-authored, you wrote in the very first sentence that “Russia cannot defeat Ukraine or the West — and will likely lose — if the West mobilizes its resources to resist the Kremlin.” How big is that “if,” and how big a step in that direction is the recently approved U.S. aid?

Nataliya Bugayova: Thank you for reading the piece. I think the U.S. aid package is certainly a key step in this direction. Secondly, with other countries, such as the United Kingdom, for example, announcing additional military aid, I think we also observe more Western leaders and societies awakening to the reality that Russia is a self-declared adversary and the West really has only two choices: counter the challenge from the Kremlin or surrender to it. I think all of these are good steps in that direction.

But for me, the key question remains about the scale and about the time. The aid that was just passed will likely be enough to help Ukraine stabilize the front line, but to help Ukraine regain the advantage…the West would really need to mobilize. And when I say “mobilize,” I mean surging up its military production even more so: restocking its supplies, sharing more of its existing supplies, building military capability and economic assets, and, frankly, accepting a higher threshold of risk — recognizing that this is the strategy to avoid more risk and more cost in the future.

RFE/RL: What does it take for the West to come to that clarity of vision, where [leaders] have to make a perhaps tough but necessary choice?

Bugayova: Well, I think there is an awakening already happening among Western countries and leaders. I think it will come down fundamentally to the West understanding and recognizing that Russia is a persistent challenge and it requires persistent investment in countering that challenge and that the cost of this persistent effort is still minor compared to the catastrophic consequences of having Russia prevail in Ukraine.

So I think it fundamentally will come down to that realization, which we are seeing, but will it come in time to help Ukraine restore some battlefield initiative? I think what we’ve seen in the last month in Europe and in the last week in the U.S. suggests that track is possible, fortunately.

RFE/RL: The West has spent the two years since the start of the war to get where we are now. How many more [years] until it arrives at a final conclusion, and what will meanwhile happen to Ukraine?

Bugayova: It’s hard to predict how many years we should expect. I think what we can say is [about] the cost of delay, in what we’ve observed in the past…. Delays in Western decision-making have resulted in Ukraine losing advantage on the battlefield. We have seen, for example, the West’s decisions, or rather inability to proactively invest in Ukraine’s initiative after Ukraine’s two successful counteroffensive operations…. Not proactively investing in Ukraine’s initiative then…led to Ukraine’s counteroffensive of 2023 being such an extraordinarily difficult undertaking.

So we know what the cost of delays are and how much they have already impacted the battlefield. We also know that the Kremlin in fact knows how to use the delays to its advantage. And, frankly, it’s been one of the key efforts of Russia’s to invest specifically in slowing Western decision-making. Because time is very much part of Russia’s capability. And we don’t usually think of time and momentum in that way, but it most certainly is.

RFE/RL: What’s the impact of Western aid delays on Ukraine’s battlefield performance, including looking ahead?

Bugayova: There are two centers of gravity in this war: There’s Ukraine’s will to fight, and there’s Western support. And if we look back…the [achievements] by Ukraine and its partners in this war resulted from both having strategic clarity and having aid arrive in time.

Going back to the point about lost opportunities on the battlefield: Many of them resulted, in large part — not the only factor, but in large part — due to Western delay in aid.

There was a failure, for example, to invest in Ukraine’s initiative in the winter of 2023 that caused setbacks in Ukrainian counteroffensive throughout 2023.

I’d add that similarly, Western hesitation to provide some of the advanced systems — such as long-range systems — early enough to Ukraine also resulted in Ukraine foregoing the strategic effects those systems would necessarily have generated for Ukraine earlier on the battlefield as well.

RFE/RL: Western hesitation has continued until very recently, including this U.S. aid. With the anticipated Russian summer offensive, how are Ukraine’s fortunes looking? Will this aid be used to ensure Ukraine withstands that offensive as successfully as possible?

Bugayova: Great question. I think the aid will certainly help stabilize the front, and I have no doubt that the Western partners will try to get it to Ukraine as promptly as physically possible. But I think it will get worse before it gets better. There are logistical considerations to getting the assistance. So it won’t have immediate impact on the front line.

And also, right now we’re in a phase where Russia absolutely understands that it still has a window of opportunity to exploit vulnerabilities across Ukraine’s front line that resulted from Ukraine having to ration a lot of the munitions. So we fully expect to see Russian attacks across the front line where it assesses that [Ukraine] has vulnerabilities.

I really want to stress that this is a comprehensive effort, on behalf of the Russian Federation, to maximally exploit this window of opportunity and also to create information/facts to try and convince the West that this aid package doesn’t matter, it’s not going to change that anyways.

So, we’re also going to see attacks across the front line. We see the campaign to essentially destroy the city of Kharkiv, to depopulate it — that also is intended to create informational facts.

We’ll simultaneously see an acceleration of Russia’s efforts to both target Ukraine domestically in the information space — [on issues such as] mobilization and other key topics in society — as well as key narratives [being put forward] in the West. So this will be a multidomain effort in the next weeks by the Russian Federation, and I think it will get worse before it gets better.

That said, and I’ll end with this to answer your question, I do think Ukraine will have the ability to stabilize the front and then think about opportunities beyond that, because the progress that we have seen by Russia still was more attributable to the changes in Ukraine’s capabilities — the ammunition and shortages in supplies — rather than some fundamental improvements in combat effectiveness on the Russian side. And I think that’s the key point.

RFE/RL: On Ukraine’s will to fight, you wrote that “Ukraine’s agency and will to fight are assets of historical proportions that should not be taken for granted.” If Ukraine’s “will to fight” is a finite resource, how much of it has been exhausted already?

Bugayova: I think it’s a great question. My assessment is that Ukraine’s will to fight remains strong. I’ve just come back from Ukraine and spent time there both in Kyiv and had a chance to go to the front. There is a realistic assessment, I would say, both within the military and society of the massive magnitude of the challenge that Ukraine is facing.

Of course, not having sufficient partner support greatly contributed to the problems that Ukraine has experienced in the front line. I think there is somber assessment, realistic assessment, but there is not defeatism. And that’s a very important thing to emphasize.

I would also want to remind that, for Ukraine, this fight is both existential and inescapable. And that is really what’s shaping the will here. There isn’t really an alternative to persisting in defending itself, because the alternative is Bucha, right? (Editor’s note: Bucha is a city northwest of Kyiv where extensive evidence was compiled after the withdrawal by Russian troops in March 2022 suggesting the occupiers had committed mass murder and other atrocities against civilians and prisoners of war.) The alternative is Russian occupation and, so far, Ukraine is choosing every day to continue [to resist].

Russia’s objectives remain — it’s important to emphasize this — [and] the Kremlin unfortunately chose to frame this war as an existential war for Ukraine. There’s zero indication that any of Russia’s objectives to erase Ukraine as an independent state, as a concept, and as a people have changed. If anything, we’ve seen the Kremlin becoming even more explicit in this objective, and I think that is also another key reality that shapes Ukraine’s will to fight. Again, it’s existential, and it’s also inescapable.

RFE/RL: We have discussed what’s at stake for Ukraine. What’s at stake for the West and the U.S. specifically? Would it be fair to say that U.S. standing in the world and its authority are riding on the outcome of this?

Bugayova: I think a lot more is at stake for the U.S. in this war than people realize. And I think, first, is that if Russia prevails in Ukraine, the U.S. will face the risk of a larger and costlier war in Europe. Why? Because, again, Russia’s intent has not changed. The Kremlin is explicit in its objective to restore large-scale war-fighting capability, reconstitute its forces, and to subjugate Ukraine.

So what’s at the stake, No. 1, is literally having to solve the same problem but under much worse conditions for the United States, and under conditions that [benefit] Russia. Why would we do that? Why would we pivot to the path of self-imposed defeat when we can still help Ukraine [with] the most advantageous scenario for the U.S.?

I think the second thing that’s at stake is that the U.S. itself would face the worst threat from Russia since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Because it won’t be just a victorious Russia that is reconstituted, but also one that’s more determined to both undermine the United States and NATO and one that’s confident that it can. Because in the scenario where Russia prevails, it almost necessarily means that the U.S. has scaled down its support. Because that’s practically the only option under which Russia prevails….

And the risk of Putin miscalculating again and thinking that the West is going to be weak will increase, and that’s how we got into this situation in the first place. That’s why we’re here: because the Kremlin thought that both NATO and the West largely were so weak that he could conquer Ukraine in three days. So, in the scenario where Russia now prevails, the risk of him being overconfident again and testing [NATO’s] Article 5 (Editor’s note: a clause in the NATO treaty that states that an armed attack against one or more alliance members is considered an attack against all and that members have the obligation to assist.)

And I think the last thing I’ll mention, in terms of the stakes, is that a Russian victory or Russia prevailing would absolutely diminish U.S. deterrence in the world, because it would embolden others who have either open or latent goals of harming the U.S., in part because it would show others — and it could be one of the more dangerous lessons of all — that the U.S. can be manipulated to essentially act against its own interests. And that’s a very dangerous lesson to teach the Chinese, or Iranians, or other U.S. adversaries. Because fundamentally U.S. security today, or years from now, depends on our ability to be thoroughly connected with our own strategic interests and — as we’ve written — first and foremost, having the freedom of decision-making, making sure that these decisions are ours and not imposed by an adversary….

RFE/RL: If all of that is at stake, then is the same clarity of vision shared across the board when it comes to official Washington? What are some of the major differences between how you guys see the situation and how the U.S. government sees it?

Bugayova: I’ll answer that in two ways. So the first part of your question is whether there is strategic clarity and what are the differences? I think Russia has been partially successful in the U.S. and beyond — around the world, frankly — in its perception-manipulation effort. And we see the results of that, and we occasionally get caught in the web of Kremlin manipulation.

At the same time, and I want to emphasize this, we still maintain an ability to have strategic clarity — as the U.S. vote on the aid bill showed…. And in fact if we look back to the beginning of the full-scale invasion [in 2022], the West had strategic clarity and it understood for a time what Russia’s intent actually was and recognized the stakes in this war. That clarity informed many, many decisions to support Ukraine in many ways, not just by governments but also individuals around the world — and of course the actions of many Ukrainians on the ground.

That’s what made a difference, that strategic clarity, between this becoming the largest insurgency in the world and this becoming a war. Ukraine defeated Russia’s initial objectives in this war because of the mixture of Ukraine’s strategic clarity but also the Western partners, I think, performing better than Putin ever expected. Yes, Russia’s manipulations have been effective in many ways, and yet we still have maintained the ability to have strategic clarity and we really need to invoke it.

In terms of differences, in my assessment, it’s not in nuances. It’s more in the bigger-picture approach. I think we have to get our big idea right in that the best way forward, the best course of actions for U.S. interests, is to support Ukraine to its victory. Because that’s the only way to actually achieve a durable peace and not just a temporary respite [from Russian aggression]. I think we’re not fully there yet, in my assessment, and we need to get there.

I think we similarly need to understand that as long as Ukraine’s will to fight persists, the most advantageous course of action remains to help Ukraine liberate its strategic terrain and, most importantly, its people, and [to understand that] the ebbs and the flows on the battlefield are not as relevant to the core interests that the U.S. has. Because the core interests remain the same: Russia still wants to erase Ukraine as a country. That is still an unacceptable outcome. And I think that’s where the gap is, and I think that’s the level we need to get to.

RFE/RL: What’s the appeal of Putin’s reflexive manipulation, and his use of history to try to justify this war, and other mantras that he is preaching? What’s its appeal?

Bugayova: I think there are several variables here. The first one is that it’s a capability that the Kremlin has been developing for years. The Kremlin has been investing and building out its information space — that goes way beyond troll factories and media outlets — for years. So, it has been a long-running investment.

And in my assessment, by the way, Russia’s true “sphere of influence” is certainly not the former Soviet space; it’s the global information space through which the Kremlin manages to proliferate its flawed or irrelevant narratives. I wouldn’t call it an “appeal,” it’s a vast capability that has been groomed, frankly, for decades.

I think, second, [is the Kremlin’s] persistence. One of the things we have to understand is that Russia has multigenerational information operations. If you think about Donbas [in eastern Ukraine] — if you think about the 2014 military intervention by Russia in Ukraine — Russia began setting conditions for that 10 years prior. In fact, there were initial versions of [the Russian-backed separatist group that calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic] spotted in 2005 in open-source. So persistence is the second point.

And the Kremlin has been cycling the same narratives over and over and over again inside of Russia and through its global information space — it’s not even a global information space, it’s a global perception space. And it includes all the media space, also all the organizations and alliances and networks that the Kremlin has built…. They’re an equal-opportunity manipulator. They go after every friction they see.

RFE/RL: What’s at stake for Russia’s neighborhood, for countries that Russia considers to be in its sphere of influence? You wrote that “If the world accepts that Russia can do whatever it wants within its self-declared sphere of influence, Russia will need fewer sticks and carrots to impose its will on its neighbors.” Let’s talk about those sticks and carrots. And let’s take Moldova and Georgia as two neighbors that might be subjected to that kind of “experiment”?

Bugayova: Fundamentally it’s a question of the Kremlin’s bandwidth, right? Russia’s power and its ability to have both sticks and carrots for its neighbors, to exert control over them, it all fundamentally hinges on whether it prevails or loses in Ukraine.

If Russia prevails in Ukraine, and gets a breather and gets time to reconstitute, it would have both bandwidth and a lot more assets to go after both Georgia and Moldova and other neighbors, too. For years, Russia has been trying to establish full control of Belarus, and, frankly, it achieved tremendous success in that effort. But it’s not complete. If Russia prevails in Ukraine, I fully expect Russia to complete its absorption of Belarus.

Source: RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty