May 5, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10596

Russian International Affairs Expert Lukyanov: Putin Is Neither A Strategist Nor A Tactician But A Fatalist

May 5, 2023
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 10596

Russia in Global Affairs Editor-in-Chief, Professor Fyodor Lukyanov, a faculty member of the National Research University – Higher School of Economics and of the Institute of World Economy and International Affairs gave an extensive interview to Tatarstan's Business Online Media in the format of a question-and-answer session with the audience. The first part of the interview dealt with Tatarstan's role in Russia and the world, while the second part, presented here, surveys current hot issues and includes Lukyanov's self-assessment of his own role in the crisis, including a response to the charge that he has sold out to the Kremlin.

Lukyanov's interview reflects the uncertainty about the outcome of the war. According to him, the decisive phase of the war is imminent. Lukyanov expects that once that phase is over, sides will enter negotiations due to mutual exhaustion. Lukyanov warns his audience that contrary to official propaganda, U.S. support for Ukraine is solid and genuine. Moreover, Ukraine does not represent a financial burden for the U.S. and could even be considered a financial asset.

Below is the second half of the Lukyanov interview:[1]

Fyodor Lukyanov (Source:

"Putin Is Aware Of His Duty To Russia In This Particular Situation"

Q: "In one of your interviews there was a phrase 'Putin... has no strategy... He is not even a tactician; I believe he is a fatalist.' Has your point of view not changed since then?"

A. "No, it hasn't. It seems to me that he is a fatalist, in the sense that he has a vision of a certain destiny and mission that he considers absolutely necessary to carry out."

Q: "A Russian mission or his own?"

A: "It's more about his own mission. I believe Putin sees it as his duty to the Russian Federation in this particular case. He is absolutely convinced that the Ukrainian issue is of existential importance to Russia, it has to be dealt with and cannot be deferred.

"I think he believes that only he can and should solve this issue. Such conviction, which can be called fatalism, defines everything. Then you can argue about how they are trying to implement it [his vision], where they have miscalculated, etc. But what is more important is that all the miscalculations that have obviously been made have in no way changed this particular vision of the president, i.e., that it [the SVO] should be carried out and it will be carried out."

Q: "Provided the president, in your opinion, is neither a strategist nor a tactician, then why was the SVO announced exactly last February?"

A: "Not a strategist, or a tactician is a slight exaggeration. He is an extremely experienced politician, the most experienced in the world right now. Vladimir Putin not only has experience, but also a vision of the world. This is very important, because there are few such people today among the countries' leaders who are able to perceive the world as a whole. And it is not even that important whether his perception of the world is correct or not.

"The main thing is that he sees the picture with all the details interconnected. Who else sees the world in such a way? Xi Jinping, probably, sees some of it, Biden, probably, too has some understanding. Macron probably possesses elements of that vision.

"Probably, a lot of people possess an understanding of the current interest, of events unfolding. But this is a different thing. I'm talking about how and where the world is going, what processes dominate and will continue.

"Putin has that vision. And the mere fact of having this vision makes policy, oddly enough, more coherent. Although, its hard at times for one to discern a consistency in our policy. But, details aside, the line is clear. Putin is convinced that the world is heading towards the collapse of U.S. hegemony. Provided we accept this thesis, then the issues that he considers to be fundamentally important for Russia have to be solved now.

"Besides, it's obvious that Ukraine's preparations for the confrontation with Russia were very intensive and successful. Thus, when Putin says there was no choice, he is, probably, right. It would have ended in a confrontation in any case, it was a question of timing. But he based this decision on something, on some calculations."

Q: "Was the decision to launch a special military operation [hereafter – the SVO] adopted because the country's development model needed to be restructured? Or did the country begin to rebuild due to the impact of the SVO and the Western sanctions that followed it? What are the cause-and-effect links here?"

A: "No one will tell you that, not even the president... I believe the realization that the model of the country's development has somehow 'run out of steam,' and it is not clear where to go next has matured for quite some time.

"It seems to me that Putin had this idea developed from the moment he returned to the presidency back in 2012. There was already a sense of stalling: Medvedev's liberalization didn't show the desired results, he probably thought, 'so now what?' Then the ideological quest began as well. It was clear that a new foundation was needed. And maybe something would have emerged from the discussion, but the Ukrainian crisis began.

"The understanding of the need for some new basis for development has been forming for a long time. And I don't believe it was the idea, when the decision was made, that it needed to change, thus, a shock was required. I don't think it was formulated that way. The considerations were primarily military and strategic."

Q: "Many people here and in Donbas wonder why Russia did not go to liberate Donbas back in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea. And many are convinced that we would have succeeded then with fewer losses. What do you think?"

A: "Unfortunately, this is an irrelevant conversation. How it might have been in 2014, we do not know. True, if we start reasoning, it seems that it would have been easier. Ukraine was not as prepared for war then as it is today. However, was Russia prepared back then? I do not know. Even now we ended up not as well prepared as we should be.

"Would the element of surprise have helped us? Well, yes, I guess it would have played a certain role. But at that time, the crisis with the West was not so profound to justify a break with them. Russia was rather deeply integrated into the Western economy."

"No One Needs A Peace Plan Right Now Because No One Is Ready To Talk About Anything"

Q: "Is it realistic to draw up a peace plan that is acceptable to both sides: Russia and Ukraine? Not long-ago, Beijing presented its 12-point plan, now French President Macron is promising us another peace plan.

A: "It [the peace plan] is a verbal intervention, but peace plans are not entirely meaningless, because they are important for the positioning of the players at the arena. The Chinese peace plan, or rather the set of some principles they perceive as important, reflects the fact that China has reached a level, where it can no longer just sit back and silently observe unfolding events.

"There is a logic to developing and existing within the international system, which determines the necessity for action if you want to maintain your reputation. And Xi Jinping has understood this. China has reached a level where it is no longer possible to feign poverty, as has long been their custom. More recently, everyone has been impressed by China's success in mediating a reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it was impressive. They have never done anything like this before. And in the Middle East region in general, China suddenly got a taste for this success; the PRC is ready to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

"The peace document that the PRC has proposed is perfect. There are no debatable issues there. However, it's not applicable today, and it is not a peace plan per se. But it's clear, at least for now, that sooner or later, at some point, the military potential [of the conflict] will be exhausted. And some form of cessation of hostilities will be required, at least for a while.

"At that moment, China will appear with its peace principles, as well as Turkey with its capabilities. Turkey very skillfully exploits its interdependence with Russia and Ukraine. It's true that should Erdogan lose the elections, it will be more difficult [to use these capabilities] because everything is built on the personal trust between Putin and Erdogan. But I do not believe Turkey will make a 180-degree turn under a new leader. All in all, we're past the era when Turkey was just the southern flank of NATO."

Q: "Does Russia even need a peace plan?"

A: "I don't think anyone needs a peace plan right now because no one is ready to talk about anything. Both sides are confident that they are capable of resolving their issues militarily. Naturally, the atmosphere fluctuates. Today people are expecting a Ukrainian offensive, some kind of powerful breakthrough.

"They are waiting so intensively that some suspicions arise that maybe they continue waiting like this... Everything is unclear, because the [density] of the 'fog of war' is historically unprecedented. Whatever the case, at the moment it seems to me that the belief in a purely military solution is the consensus between Russia and Ukraine. Both sides absolutely believe in this notion.

"What will happen in the next phase, we do not know. There could be quite significant developments or, on the contrary, a lack of them. Both scenarios will probably lead to a situation where the status quo will need to be adjusted. Then a group of countries may act as a mediator. As for Macron, I find it hard to imagine him playing this role, because a mediator has to be distanced, at least formally. In that sense, China is not quite suitable either."

Q: "And Turkey isn't quite suitable as well?

A: "Turkey plays both ways, and France plays on one-side, same as 'neutral' Switzerland. Neutrality can only exist under a durable peace. The Cold War was also a durable peace when one is sure that war will not erupt. The confrontation may be intense, but it was stable, as it was during the Cold War. Neutrality is the belief that others will recognize you as neutral. And with everything falling apart, and when there is no trust in anyone, there is no real neutrality. Now the other question is whether that very same 'durable peace' will arrive in our lifetime. I am not sure."

"By Next Spring There Will Be Some Clarity On What Is Further Possible"

Q: "The opinion exists that in 2024 things will be resolved, because there will be presidential elections in the U.S. and Russia, time is running out, and such a conflict is not beneficial to either Moscow or Washington. What do you think about this?"

A: "By the way, there should be elections in Ukraine in 2024 too. That is also a factor to account for."

Q: "To what extent could the year 2024 be a turning point? Or is it also part of 'mutual propaganda?'"

A: "No, it's not part of the propaganda. Elections determine a lot, in the sense that they dictate a 'rhythm' between the elections [in Russia]. In countries where there is an alteration of power, elections are important. There may be major twists and turns. So, it's not propaganda, but I wouldn't expect miraculous changes.

"It doesn't pay to link the dynamics of the Ukrainian conflict to the year 2024, because I think by next spring there will be some clarity about what's possible next.

"The parties will enter election campaigns in a state that can be assessed. It is not the elections that will affect the course of the military campaign, but rather the opposite, the course of the military campaign will to some extent determine the election campaigns."

Q: "Does the Ukrainian situation play a factor in U.S. domestic politics?"

A: "It really does play a role. American society's awareness of the Ukrainian conflict and the degree of public solidarity with Ukraine, as witnesses report, is high. There are Ukrainian flags festooned all over the place in small towns. And this is not because the local obkom [regional Communist party branch in the USSR] of the Democratic Party ordered it."

Q: "Maybe the Ukrainian conflict is used to distract the [U.S.] population from internal problems?"

A: "I don't think so. Americans are really hard to distract from domestic problems, they will vote based on them. But Ukraine is still a factor. The question is how profitable it will be to play this factor by the start of the election campaign.

"By and large, 160 billion USD of the U.S. aid to Ukraine is not much when you consider the power of the U.S. economy. Especially when the 'printing press' is running. Most importantly, the U.S. is making money on this war. First, money remains in the country, and second, American LNG [liquefied natural gas] has practically replaced Russian gas in Europe, despite it being three times more expensive [than Russian gas].

U.S. LNG on the way to export markets (Source:

"Three years ago, that was unthinkable. I remember at one of the discussions, energy experts were declaring that 'Some completely incredible conditions have to be in place for American LNG to become competitive with Russian gas in Europe!' And when I asked, 'Do you admit a possibility that the Americans will create such conditions?' they answered, 'Come on, it's a market...' But they did create them! If you count the U.S. spending on Ukraine and the income from it, it is not impossible that the Americans will wind up on the plus side.

"Another question is whether the Americans will tire of Ukraine, because, indeed, this conflict does not directly affect U.S. security. But by the time they get tired of it, I believe the entire political and economic machine will be reorganized on absolutely different principles, which is exactly what is happening now. What has Ukraine revealed for the U.S.? It revealed that they don't have enough arms. Nobody thought they would need them in such quantities.

"And now everything is being rebuilt for what will be needed. And this rearrangement under the new cold war will serve as a motor for development everywhere. But I don't think we will get stuck in an arms race again like we did in the 1970s, but rather the opposite, provided both they and us have the brains. I hope it will be a stimulus for new things."

Q: "Has the U.S. completely buried Germany's political independence?"

A: "I wouldn't put it this way, that the Americans buried it. Germany itself renounced it. We have been waiting for a long time for Europe to wake up, to remember its former greatness, but we see exactly the opposite. Strategic autonomy is a good slogan. What does it mean for Europe?

"Are you [the Germans?] going to build your own [military] capacity and leave NATO? - No way! [answer the Germans]. What kind of strategic autonomy can there be then? Autonomy from whom, your main ally? This is absolute nonsense! As the Americans themselves quite rightly point out. Macron, apparently, for his own political reasons, declares it, but Germany does not. A very powerful political elite, nurtured exclusively on the ideology of Atlanticism, has been formed over many decades.

"Since the 1950s, German schoolchildren went to the U.S. to live with American families as exchange students, and vice versa. A very strong tradition of Atlanticist thinking has developed there, based on the deep-rooted conviction that if Atlanticism will be abandoned, Germans and Europeans in general will descend into the nightmares from the first half of the 20th century.

"And this was indeed a nightmare for them. Why do they have such a reaction to our actions? Because they thought that a big war in Europe was impossible. Yugoslavia does not count."

Q: "But perhaps this is also the weakness of the European elite?"

A: "It is common to say that the current European leaders are 'small men.' But I don't think there has been a process of their diminution, but rather a landing process of the [EU] politicians. I have already talked about this, the presence or absence of a [comprehensive] vision of the world. It seemed to them that this was no longer necessary. It is necessary to deal with the current issues of welfare and economic growth and that's it. Russia is not a big enemy anymore. Then what is it for? It seems to me that this is what happened to them. If there had been circumstances that had befallen previous generations, quite different elites would have been formed.

"But now there are again challenges on a very large scale. Let's see if new elites emerge in Europe under their influence."

"China Does Not Claim To Be A Hegemon"

Q: "China is not the eastern 'Siamese twin' of the U.S., or am I wrong?"

A: "No, this picture is too simplistic. It's the Siamese twin of the U.S. in the sense that globalization from the 1980s until today has been based on the closest U.S.-China economic symbiosis. True, both countries have a capitalist economy, but there are a lot of specifics. And on the values level, China is not communicating with the world, because its values will not be accepted by the world. The Chinese are deeply convinced that their values are so special that they are not for the world."

Q: "But if China claims the role of the hegemon, how does it align with their special values?"

A: "The PRC does not claim to be a hegemon, that is the point. Russia and the West assume that China is governed by the same motivations as us. It seems to me that China does not claim to be a hegemon in our understanding of the word. First of all, they have a completely different way of thinking. Second, even if the PRC aspired to the role of hegemon, China is so culturally and historically specific that its influence only extends to countries that eat rice instead of bread.

"China is one of the pillars of this cultural area, but no more than that. In general, I think the era when someone shows up with his idea and a mission is over. It seems to me that today nobody is looking for the mission, nobody needs it. Nobody needs the Chinese mission, and nobody needs our mission either."

Q: "To what extent is the PRC a 'friend and brother' to Russia?"

A: "China is neither our friend nor our brother, I believe, simply because there are no 'friends and brothers' in international relations. I believe China is a reliable enough partner for us. There is a xenophobic expectation that the Chinese only strive to take advantage of us, that they don't need us. The Chinese don't really need anybody. It's a [self-sufficient] civilization, for sure.

"In our new foreign policy concept, we also proclaimed ourselves to be a civilization, but we have to try hard to become one, in my opinion. As for China, it is stands firmly on the stratum of its civilization tradition. Therefore, by and large, they do not need anyone in terms of self-image.

"But China has finally rid itself of the illusion that globalization will return. And with the U.S. they will now enter into competition and economic struggle. They started to realize this under Trump, but they still had hope that Trump was some sort of aberration.

"And when Trump left the office and all this [policy of containing China] remained, their illusion was dispelled. And in these conditions of long-term strategic competition, Russia is very important to them. Russia is a gigantic prop that, firstly absorbs the initial blow itself; secondly, it is a gigantic resource potential in every sense of this word; thirdly, it is a country with which [the PRC] has no particular contradictions. To me, the perception that the Chinese dream of occupying our territories right up to the Urals seems to be the stuff of myths. They don't need it now; they know exactly what real China is."

Q: "Don't you think that we will fall under China's influence economically? If China were to sever [economic ties], what would happen?"

A: "If the Chinese market will become inaccessible, it would be very bad, only it is not clear why they should do it. For China it is very profitable."

Q: "Now Beijing perceives Tatarstan as one of the entry points into Russia; a logistics center named after Deng Xiaoping is being built in the republic; Haier invests billions of dollars. Are the Chinese our friends or rather business partners, who are benefitting [from the relationship]? In the long term, can we count on China?"

Model of Deng Xiaoping Logistics Center (Source: Tatar-inform)

A: "What other choice do we have? Since we are in this situation, we have to relax and enjoy it, as the saying goes. But I think that the realization of the dangers of the country's over-dependence on China exists among our leadership. Presently, we have little to counter this because it's just a force majeure situation.

"The main question of our policy is how not to limit cooperation with China, so as not to fall into dependence, but to accelerate all other possible partnerships, i.e., ones with India, Arab and Asian countries that are willing to seek options to circumvent the American secondary sanctions in order to maintain relations [with Russia].

"This is the main thing today. It would be foolish in this situation to start a policy of containing China, because it could be so contained that we would be left with nothing. But we have to forcefully develop everything else at the same time. That is a huge challenge for our state apparatus. We knew and understood the West very well, while the East, first, is very diverse and, second, we are not all that familiar with it, to be honest."

Q: "Has it traditionally been this way or does this apply to current Russian history?"

A: "Traditionally, the West was closer to Russia, but in the 1990s and 2000s, the East fell deep into the shadows. It is now being remembered like a nightmare that there was not a single visit to India by a Russian leader for 10 years, because it was hard for Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin]..."

"Our Society Is Very Sustainable"

Q: "Reader's question: 'Are Western sanctions really beneficial for the development of the Russian economy, as it sometimes being claimed?'"

A: "I am not an economist, so I'll talk layman's terms. Naturally, there is nothing good about sanctions. Such a powerful 'blow' cannot do any good for the economy. But it does not negate the other issue. We discussed today that our economic model has already exhausted [its potential]. Naturally, the comfort that we enjoyed over the previous 20 years was to a large degree a rented and borrowed one. We obtained this comfort—technology and everything else—in return for money [received] from exporting our resources. This economic model can exist; examples are Canada, Australia, and Norway. But they are members of the Western alliance, while we are not and will never be. Thus, sooner or later we would have to rebuild the economic model."

Q: "Vladimir Putin travelled to Donbas. What does this tell you? Has there been a change in the situation? Maybe the meeting with Xi had an impact?"

A: "I believe meeting with Xi has nothing to do with it. I would suggest the following: provided there is a bet on prolongation of the hostilities, then the Commander-in-Chief cannot help but demonstrate his involvement in those very hostilities. Putin has one trait that many perceive as his political weakness, which still defines him as a human being.

"He doesn't like posturing; he doesn't like to attend events simply to show off. From the very outset, he had none of this. I do not rule out that one of the reasons for it is that he does not want to disturb people with his visit, because the President's visit to the battle lines is an event that is very difficult to organize from a security perspective. However, as a leader, and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, he is obliged to demonstrate involvement, participation."

Q: "In an interview with 'BUSINESS Online' media last summer, you said, 'Russia's task for the coming years is to remain sustainable and survive. And internal processes are the most important thing here.' But doesn't it seem to you that within the country not everyone is united? For instance, Evgeny Prigozhin writes that a significant part of the elites hopes for the country's defeat and wishes for a return to the old order."

A: "We may feel something, but we know nothing about it at all. We live in an atmosphere of perpetual engineering of some reality by someone with incomprehensible goals. Telegram channels, which everyone reads, are a prime example of this; it's sort of a turbid universe. Personally, I have no idea whether there is this split exists amongst the Russian elite.

"As for the task of having to deal with domestic politics... well, we are dealing with it right now. We engage in domestic politics at all times for the most correct and understandable reason. In the epoch of globalization, all politics seems to be foreign affairs, but now it seems to me that all politics are increasingly becoming internal. And success is determined not by the square of territory taken, or markets conquered, but by the internal sustainability of the state and society. And this is the case everywhere, not only for our country."

Q: "Is Russian society sustainable?"

A: "Our society, strange as it may seem to many, is very sustainable. 'Why,' you ask? Ask sociologists that question."

"As An Expert, I Did Not Understand The Magnitude Of What Was To Come"

Q: "In the old days, when you were often the expert guest at [the liberal and now shuttered] 'Echo of Moscow' radio, Fyodor Lukyanov's name was associated rather with the liberal camp of political scientists specializing in international relations. Much has changed over the recent years, you are now perceived almost as an official figure, a regular interviewer of Putin. How much has your circle of contacts changed over these years? Are there many among them who felt that 'Lukyanov sold out to the Kremlin?'"

A: "I've never considered myself to be part of the liberal camp, nor do I consider myself a member of the conservative camp. It's quite difficult to formulate my own beliefs (laughs)."

Lukyanov interviews Putin at the Valdai Discussion Club (Source:

Q: "Have you changed over the last 2-5 years?"

A: "Of course! And everyone has changed too. If a person is engaged in more or less intellectual work and doesn't change in five years, then they have stopped pursuing intellectual work. I think my beliefs are adjusting somehow, I have internal arguments with myself. We all find ourselves in a situation of some ideological split over attitudes towards the SVO. Naturally, I haven't avoided this problem as well.

"I always try to maintain some kind of commitment to common sense and non-exuberance. It seems to me that a problem which we have confronted for some time but are confronting in its fullest dimension now, under the new conditions, is that what has become important is not one's position, but the degree of exuberance exhibited in its presentation. It is true for everybody: whether you have sold out to the Kremlin, to Soros, or to the devil. I always try to avoid this in my work.

"Despite the many complaints I have towards myself, it warms my heart that a lot of people thank me for the fact that my writing and TV shows are not rabid. It's not even a matter of position, it's about trying to explain things calmly. I may be wrong, I may not understand something, but I'm trying to explain. And it turns out that people really need it, irrespective of their stance. It means that I am fulfilling some useful function."

Q: "What have you been most disappointed about in the last year and a half?"

A: "I was certainly disappointed by the start of the special military operation. No matter how one feels about this historical phenomenon, it came as a failure of everyone's policies. If it has come to this, it is a failure of policy, and everyone bears their share of responsibility. I understand that all of this did not come out of the blue, that this [resulted] from a set of contradictions which have accumulated and would have 'exploded' one way or another.

"But the fact that it happened this way and in this particular part of the world is a terrible tragedy, because we were all caught up in a conflict that has, to a large extent, the elements of a civil internecine war. Naturally this is disappointing. I often wonder: did I myself [do something to] contribute to its happening or, conversely, to prevent it from happening?

"And I was very disappointed in myself. For three months after the launch of the SVO, I tried to maintain a low profile, because I thought, 'why should people listen to me at all, if over last four months I was convincingly proving to them that this could never happen (because I thought this truly to be the case)? So, was I lying to them?

"Later those feelings subsided a bit. But the disappointment was due to the fact that, as a specialist in the international strategic sphere, I did not realize the magnitude of what was to come. There were people who understood and told us so. And I failed professionally, so I was disappointed with myself."


[1], April 30, 2023.

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