An Essay on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, part #4: understanding Russian intentions

The Russian opinion is that the current chaos in Ukraine is jeopardising Ukraine’s status as a buffer state between East and West so imperative to Russia’s foreign policy of foreclosing the risks of invasion from the West, and suffering NATO to permit of mission creep. Hence that chaos will be clipped; and Ukraine will receive a reliable, formidable leader steeped in the methods of the Russian security services, to haul the country’s production structures into line.

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By Matthew Parish

This article is written at 3:30am Zulu on Monday 14 February 2022. At this juncture, most western-leaning governments have ordered their embassies for the most part evacuated, including US and British military officials present in the country. This took place a great speed over the weekend, following a meeting between Russian and British Ministers of Defence in Moscow on Friday 11 February 2022 at which logistical measures for the departure of western forces and diplomats was discussed. It seems that the Kremlin gave western forces 48 hours to depart, informing them that they could not guarantee their safety after that point. (This is diplomatic language for the assertion that if they remained, they would be attacked by the incoming army.)

There were reports that the Russian military invasion would begin early in the morning of 16 February 2022; and this may still hold although amidst the fog of war the truth is often quickly lost. Reading either Kyiv or Moscow newspapers, one might be drawn to the inference that nobody is terribly worried about anything and that there is no crisis or danger of imminent invasion. This reflects a feature of both Russia and Ukraine, that we in the west find virtually unfathomable. These countries are not democracies, and have no hope ever of becoming so within the lifetimes of the readers of this article. Instead they are societies used to be being run by self-serving state apparatus, in particular the domestic intelligence services, that we in the west can scarcely imagine. People are afraid even to think in ways that the state security apparatus might not find conformist. This is the result over over 70 years of communist rule, which developed a pervasive paranoia in the societies of the Soviet Union in which government security officials were recruited wholesale to spy on the general population and even upon everyone else. However the history lesson does not end with the emergence of Soviet Communism; it goes back centuries of despotic government over unruly, hardy people in frozen lands.

The idea therefore that Ukraine is a united democracy within the framework of western political thinking is a fantasy. Just because the West spend substantial amounts of money in so-called “capacity building” for democratic institutions does not mean that you can quickly change a culture from one of paranoid secret state totalitarianism to fresh and transparent democracy overnight or even at all. What happened in Ukraine was that the western money was spent in creating institutions that looked like democratically elected bodies on paper; but did not change the hearts and minds of the populace. Instead Ukraine’s post-Soviet history has been one very familiar to the entirety of the former Soviet Union: key state assets were captured by the communist officials at the time, who quickly then shed the label communist in order to pretend they were democrats and thereby mislead the West into thinking it had democratic partners; those individuals became wealthy from the transfer of state productive assets into their private control; and the country ended up being run by a handful of the wealthiest oligarchs who acquired their money for the most part by asset-stripping Ukraine at the expense of the central state, which became denuded of all powers. The recent history of elections in Ukraine must be viewed in that light. The elections are mere fabrications, because it is impossible to force the oligarchs out of office. They own the entire country. All you can arrange is rotating figureheads representing more or less western or eastern interests. That is not democracy. It is a sham.

Many of the same things happened in Russia in the 1990’s, albeit that Russia became a far wealthier country by reason of her hydrocarbon surpluses that to a substantial extent had been overlooked during the communist period as quality of government, including scientific and geological research, waned towards the end of the communist period. Hence a group of oligarchs arose during the tenure of the Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The net result of this was that the country became ungovernable in the Yeltsin era, the real power being held by private individuals, formerly communist apparatchiks, who owned all the means of production. Those individuals were content that the country slide ever further into the ground, because they had acquired their wealth and sluiced it abroad by asset-stripping state-owned enterprises during the fall of the Soviet Union. To this extent the Russian and Ukrainian experiences of post-Soviet political economics are very similar.

What happened in 2000 was that a Russian President was elected by a paranoid population and elite who enjoyed what they had always felt most comfortable with: a security state being used to oversee the orderly work of the general public. Vladimir Putin did not have a bargain with the oligarchs when he rose to power, and it was not them who put him in power. That was perhaps the first and last truly democratic election Russia ever had, when the general population of Russia decided that enough was enough with the oligarchs expropriating the country’s assets, dividing her territory between them as quasi-private governors of fiefdom; and all the anarchy, violence and breakdown in rule of law that government by feuding oligarchs entailed. Putin stood on an overt platform of reuniting the country’s governance through regrowth of the security services that had eroded during Yeltsin’s time, as a means of keeping the order. And people were pleased to vote for this vision, because it comported with their history. Putin then explained to the Russian oligarchs, in more or less pleasant terms, that they could keep their wealth on paper but should they venture into politics in terms opposing his new autocracy, then they would be murdered by his emerging new security apparatus that thought like him and were (and remain) loyal to him. And that is what happened to several oligarchs who crossed the Kremlin. The murders also extended to disloyal Russian security service officials; the relatively few foreign assassinations of Russians that have taken place on the orders of the Kremlin have virtually to a man been of defecting intelligence service operatives. Vladimir Putin is, in some ways, a straight and orderly man. There are two things he does not tolerate: scheming and disobedient oligarchs; and intelligence agency defectors. Both are met with the same fate: murder. If the reader thinks that this is a horrendous way to run a country, then this author makes only two observations: firstly that it was always so in Russia; secondly that many countries are run like this.

The problem with Ukraine was that because it was a so-called buffer state at the end of the Cold War, with divided ethnicity as explained in earlier essays in this series, no national leader could emerge from the ruins of the Ukrainian oligarchs themselves having divided the new country into a series of private fiefdoms. That in large part was because Russia and the West always had very distinct visions of Ukrainian political development. For Russia, Ukraine was a mostly agrarian country of simplistic people and governance of the country was a matter of fitting that mindset into the Russian governmental way of operating; whereas for the West Ukraine was, like a number of other newly independent post-Soviet satellite states, a nascent democracy to develop in the Western European mould. The problems with these competing divisions was that Ukraine bore the brunt of foreign interference from both sides, each pulling in different directions. Hence a single national leader operating upon a principle of genuine popular consensus could not emerge; and the oligarchs continued to ravage the country. This was not helped by a series of events since 2014 in which the West sought to arrange Ukrainian democratic evolution in a way that supported candidates fuelling the western ideology that Russia found so profoundly misplaced in a country like Ukraine that, for Russia, was just another country, albeit somewhat smaller, of northern Slavs that for an extended period had been under Moscow’s yoke. For Russia, Ukraine, with her colossal budget deficits, endemic poverty, inefficient production and the massive subsidies required to continue her economy afloat, has always been little more than a badly-run quasi-autonomous vassal of the Russian Federation. Between the western and eastern visions of the Ukrainian body politic, the oligarchs continued to flourish and to steal, with no disciplinary force being brought to restrain them. That is why Ukraine remains the poorest country in Europe. In the intervening period, the always latent Ukrainian demographic divide between Ukrainian speakers (in the northwest) and the Russian speakers (in the southeast) became ever more pronounced as a reflection of the two respective political visions of the future of the country.

Now let us return to the forthcoming Russian invasion of Ukraine, which starts to be able to be understood in far clearer terms given this brief history lesson. At the time of writing the Russian domestic security and intelligence service, the FSB (that has always been far more active in post-independence Ukraine than anyone would care to admit) are arranging a series of local coups d’├ętat in the major provincial cities representing the centres of power of the rival Ukrainian oligarchs who have divided the country up into private fiefdoms with private army and police forces. So the Kremlin’s policy appears to be to dismantle the power structures in Ukraine in which rival oligarchs act in an unrestrained, lawless fashion (Ukraine is far more lawless than Russia) that have recently come to cause Moscow such inconvenience. In the absence of a stable government in Kyiv with which Moscow can transact hydrocarbon and other businesses, and arrange for an orderly political relationship between the two capitals, some oligarchs have been inviting western troops (particularly clandestine troops – but in modern Europe there is no such thing as a clandestine military presence anymore), this principle offending against Russia’s conception of Ukraine as a neutral buffer state. The means of production, including Ukraine’s all-important steel industry in the southeast, have been disrupted through kleptocratic mismanagement. Debates with Ukraine about these issues have led to inconvenient sanctions imposed by the West since 2014. So Russia intends to implement a series of mini-coups against the unruly Ukrainian oligarchs, who as far as Moscow is concerned should report to the Kremlin like all other post-CIS oligarchs, using the security apparatus: a structure most Ukrainians are so used to. The Ukrainian oligarchs, to a man (and they are all men), have become persona non grata in Moscow because Russia (no doubt rightly) considers them responsible for the political and economic burden that Ukraine has become to Russia and indeed to Europe more broadly. These individuals are not capable of governing Ukraine in a way that even remotely aspires to balance the books; and therefore they must go the way of other disobedient oligarchs in the past: they will be removed from their positions of influence and neutralised.

What then is the purpose of the massive Russian armed forces presence on the borders? They of course are the peacekeepers, who will come in and stabilise the situation once the conflagration between covert FSB agents plotting coups against the oligarchs explodes into the open. At the same time, this will give Russia the opportunity of demonstrating to the world the superior capacity of a range of contemporary Russian military armour, including her new hypersonic missiles; the M-31 fighter jet; her latest attack helicopters and of course the cutting-edge S-400 surface-to-air missiles. The purpose of this display of course is marketing to countries to buy Russian military equipment rather than the inferior and more costly equipment peddled by US and Western European governments. Finally, Russia will be able to demonstrate the renewed discipline and training of her ground forces, which she can then likewise sell as mercenaries or proxies to parties engaged in ground wars around the world.

The net result will be the installation of a new Ukrainian leader content to serve under the constraints of the Russian security state; the suppression of linguistic and ethnic differences in the country; military occupation at least until the Ukrainian armed forces and law enforcement services receive a cultural change through FSB infiltration of their ranks; and placing Ukraine on a more orderly course. The Russian opinion is that the current chaos in Ukraine is jeopardising Ukraine’s status as a buffer state between East and West so imperative to Russia’s foreign policy of foreclosing the risks of invasion from the West, and suffering NATO to permit of mission creep. Hence that chaos will be clipped; and Ukraine will receive a reliable, formidable leader steeped in the methods of the Russian security services, to haul the country’s production structures into line.

The reader is left to ask whether they are content to see Ukraine through these new spectacles. One question is whether the majority of Ukrainians will acquiesce; in this author’s opinion, they will, because it is a mindset Ukrainians are used to every bit as are Russians. What is about to be imposed upon them is much the same as what they have always been used to. The secondary power in the CIS order of things, Ukrainians appreciate to a great deal that they need proper management and this may explain why reports of events in Kyiv over the past few days are of relative order and complacency. Ukrainians know why all this has to happen. The oligarchs have failed their country for two long, and now a long overdue reckoning is about to occur as the Kremlin aims for the oligarch’s heads. Without doubt, the President of Russia has no compunction in imposing a solution that decapitates the oligarchs; he has amassed the armed forces to do it and even if Ukrainians do not just acquiesce and there are pockets of resistance, then the destruction that will cause is worth the benefit of placing Ukraine, Russia’s most important neighbour in many ways, upon a more adequate course for the future.

For those who do not relish this vision, or are concerned for their safety and security, this author’s legal and security consultancy business is arranging for Ukraine extraction services. It is too late to leave Ukraine now by regular commercial means, but there are extra-regular ways of leaving the country while the conflict unfolds. Go to for full details.

Matthew Parish is the Managing Partner of The Paladins,, a private firm of legal, security and intelligence consultants. He is the author of three books and over four hundred articles  on international law, international relations and geopolitics. Follow the author on Twitter @parish_matthew.

This article was originally published by The Paladins and is available by clicking here

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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