20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of interviews with experts on the situation in Russia, its relations with the West, and the future of the country’s political system. On the eve of the anniversary of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Donetsk, journalist Leonid Martynyuk spoke with Ukrainian writer Vitaly Portnikov about the various theories that exist regarding the cause of the tragedy, the possibility of an international tribunal to investigate the incident, Putin’s plans with regard to Ukraine, and future relations between the two countries.


According to Vitaly Portnikov, Vladimir Putin’s main goal is to restore the Soviet Union as an area where his clan can rule with impunity. Photo: uainfo.org


Leonid Martynyuk: One year ago, a tragedy happened: On July 17, a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was shot down while flying over the Donbass, killing 298 people. Many theories have been proposed about this tragedy since then. Which theory do you subscribe to?

Vitaly Portnikov: I do not subscribe to any of the theories. I think that any reasonable person understands what happened to the Boeing. Right after news reports appeared about the calamity, representatives of the so-called “people’s republics” announced that they had shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft. These reports disappeared when it became clear that it was in fact a civilian aircraft. But almost everyone saw these reports, since they remained online for a rather long time. Moreover, there have not been and could not be any facts pointing to anyone else’s involvement in the downing of the Boeing. Any Russian statements about Ukraine’s possible involvement in the plane crash are either part of anti-Ukraine propaganda or yet another conspiracy theory. The reason these are the only possibilities is that neither the Russian military nor their hired guns had planes in the sky during that period of the conflict—whereas Ukraine’s air force did have planes in operation, including military and cargo aircraft, since we are talking about Ukrainian airspace. There had also been previous instances of Ukrainian military aircraft being shot down by Russian or pro-Russian militants, or by Russian soldiers. It is difficult to know who did this exactly. This tragedy was a result of the campaign to try to eliminate Ukraine’s aerial capabilities. In this case, a civilian Malaysian airplane was mistaken for a Ukrainian military aircraft.

L.M.: Do Ukrainian media outlets and politicians hold a similar view of the incident?

V.P.: I don’t think that reasonable people could hold any other view or suspect anything different. Russia is the only place in the world where people could suspect something different. This is because the Russian media landscape has been sealed off from outside influence and because many Russians just do not want to accept the obvious. Nobody in the world believes that the plane could have been shot down by anything but a Russian missile. It only needs to be proved so that in Russia, no one is left with any doubts that the plane was shot down by Russians. But I think that even if there was irrefutable evidence and people could see Vladimir Putin’s signature under a direct order authorizing an attack on a civilian aircraft, Russians would still not believe it, just as they do not believe that Polish officers were massacred on Stalin’s orders despite the existence of documents with his signature on them. Nor do they believe that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact existed or that Communist Party leaders ordered the executions of the 1930s, even though there are signed documents proving both things.

L.M.: Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and crashed on Ukrainian territory. Even though the flight did not have a single Russian passenger on board, the media in Russia and the Russian government have paid particularly close attention to the incident. There are constantly new theories about what might have caused the tragedy. What do you think the reason is for all this attention to it?

V.P.: It is because they fear that retribution is inevitable. Besides, the Boeing crashed not just on Ukrainian territory but on territory controlled by Russian troops and their hired guns. The tragedy came as a direct result of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which began right after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia and which led to the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In Russia, many people understand that taking responsibility for the MH17 tragedy could lead to them being held responsible for the expansionist policies of Russia’s political leadership.

L.M.: In Russia, many people believe that Ukraine’s propaganda machine acts just as crudely as the Kremlin’s. What do you think?

V.P.: We do not have propaganda. We have information. The difference between the Russian media and the Ukrainian media is that we use facts. We may become emotional in our treatment of these facts, and we may pay more attention to some facts than other media outlets do—more than either Russian or Western outlets do—because the fighting is taking place inside our country. The difference between Ukraine and Russia is that we tell the truth, whereas Russians lie. It is the same difference as between good and evil, hot and cold, honest and dishonest, and so on. These are just simple antonyms. This is why I want to emphasize once again that there is no such thing as Ukrainian propaganda.

Our problem is that we cannot make certain facts known to international audiences because Russian political leaders spend a tremendous amount of money—money that actually belongs to Russian taxpayers, no less—to suppress the truth, to propagate lies using the world media, and to finance media outlets such as Russia Today, the goal of which is diversion, and other organizations created to serve the needs of Russian political leaders. But once again, Ukraine is not using propaganda. It is harder for Ukraine to convey the truth than it is for Russia to disseminate lies. This is an obvious fact and does even require any further explanations. Explanations would be needed if, for example, Russian troops were stationed in Donetsk and Ukrainian troops were in Voronezh. Or if Russia annexed Crimea, and then Ukraine annexed Kuban [in southern Russia], arguing that this region was historically part of Ukraine and that Ukraine could not do without it. But instead we are facing a situation in which Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been occupied, in which Russia is acting as an aggressor toward Ukraine, and in which the Russian regime has brought blood, death and tears to the homes of my fellow citizens.

I hope that the day will come when members of Russia’s political regime will be held responsible for these crimes, and Russian society will realize the depth of responsibility of every Russian citizen and will experience the same kind of awakening that German society experienced after the fall of the Third Reich. Because the responsibility of every Russian citizen for the tragedy in Ukraine is equal to the responsibility of every German for the tragedies that occurred in the countries occupied and destroyed by Hitler’s Reich during World War II. Moreover, the regimes of Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany are almost identical from the point of view of their understanding of good and evil.

L.M.: What conclusions do you think will be drawn by the international investigative group probing into the circumstances of the crash of MH17? Will they name those responsible for the tragedy?

V.P.: The international investigative group will use the facts it has at its disposal, not emotional evaluations or speculation. Therefore we will learn all the facts the group has at its disposal. If the international investigative group proves the involvement of Vladimir Putin and other representatives of the Russian government in this crime, this information will be released. If it proves the involvement of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other Russian military leaders, this information will be released as well. If there are specific facts about the involvement of middle-ranking Russian military leaders and representatives of the so-called “people’s republics,” then this information will be released. One cannot know for sure at the moment, unfortunately. One cannot make predictions, because it will depend on the investigation.

After the collapse of Vladimir Putin’s political regime, Russian statehood will experience a transformation and a new Russia will emerge that will irrevocably renounce both its imperial and its current Putin heritage.

L.M.: Five countries—Malaysia, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Belgium and Australia—have asked the United Nations Security Council to establish an international criminal tribunal to prosecute those responsible for shooting down MH17. Russia opposes this initiative. Do you support the idea of such a tribunal?

V.P.: The fact the Russia is opposed to the idea shows that Russian political leaders fear the creation of an international body that will hold them responsible for what happened, because we are dealing with a group of people who know that they are involved in this tragedy and are directly responsible for it. And they fear retribution very much.

L.M.: Would it not be smarter for the Russian government to declare its support for the tribunal but at the same time make impossible demands of it? So that later, the country’s leaders could tell Russians on television that they support the search for truth but that the United States and other Anglo-Saxons hate them and are preventing them from attaining it.

V.P.: Russia understands very well what information the international investigators possess, and as a result they fear the tribunal more than any propaganda tools. Russian leaders understand perfectly well that no matter what demands are made of the international tribunal, the release of indisputable evidence proving Russia’s guilt in the destruction of a commercial airplane would lead to rather serious consequences. And they will do everything in their power to at least avoid such a tribunal. I believe, however, that conventional trials in Western countries will be enough to identify those guilty of this tragedy and punish them sooner or later.

L.M.: What consequences could such trials have for Putin’s regime?

V.P.: It depends on who exactly will be involved in the court proceedings.

L.M.: Some believe that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a confrontation (war) between Russia and Ukraine was unavoidable. Many Soviet citizens, with the exception of those who lived on the nation’s “outskirts,” such as western Ukraine and the Baltic states, are bitter about the fall of the Soviet Union. What is your opinion on this?

V.P.: A war between Russia and Ukraine would have been avoidable if Russian society had managed to build a civilized European democratic state within the territory that fell under Moscow’s control after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian society and its political and business elite failed to accomplish this. In Russia, there are no free parliamentary or local elections, there is no independent judicial system, and no independent banking system. The Russian state acts essentially as an organized criminal group. It has all the components of a criminal organization: command centers and local gangs spread all over the country that control Russian cities under the guise of [formal] institutions.

L.M.: Then what do you think caused the conflict between Russia and Ukraine?

V.P.: Naturally, such an organized crime syndicate is interested in widening the market, just as state structures are. Russia sees the European integration of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics as a threat not because the empire is disappearing, but because crime families that actually represent the essence of Russian statehood, the essence of its public life and its existence as a civilization, are losing control over enormous territories. Russia’s aggression against our country began right after it became clear that Ukraine wanted to integrate itself into the European community (an idea which, by the way, did not entail regime change). The aggression began after it became clear that certain economic principles would begin to function that would not allow these criminal groups to continue controlling the country and would prevent the so-called Russian economy from making itself at home in Ukraine, meaning they would prevent Russia from acting according to the principles of a thieves’ den. Russia then forced Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to join the Eurasian Economic Union, which is the most notorious organization uniting criminal regimes in the world today. So this is nostalgia for a life of crime—not nostalgia for the Soviet empire.

L.M.: In Russia, the conflict with Ukraine is mostly depicted as an indirect confrontation with the United States and Europe.

V.P.: Russia’s confrontation with [Western] countries has the same underlying reasons: Both the United States and the European Union are based on and function according to the principles of the free market and respect toward citizens’ rights. It is natural for Russia, however, being an organized criminal group disguised as a state, to feel the same hatred toward this free honest world as a mafia boss feels toward people who lead honest lives. This is an existential difference—the difference between good and evil. The fact that Ukraine chose to side with good and not be a vertukhai [“prison guard” in prison slang—Ed.] in this Eurasian colony provoked animal rage not only in Vladimir Putin but also in many of his fellow citizens who are still guided by thieves’ laws and see a thief’s tattoo as the highest achievement of human development of the last millennium. And if, on top of that, this thief has billions, he is considered a darling of destiny.

L.M.: What do you think Putin’s main goal is with regard to Ukraine? Is it a “frozen conflict,” acquisition of more Ukrainian territory, or something else?

V.P.: Vladimir Putin’s main goal is to restore the Soviet Union as an area where his clan can rule with impunity. The first [step] is to restore the U.S.S.R. by invading all territories that were once part of the Soviet Union. The second step will be to expand this entity’s zone of influence to include Central and Eastern European countries. Whether these goals are attainable is a different story.

L.M.: Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer expects hostilities in eastern Ukraine to escalate in the coming months. What is your forecast?

V.P.: I don’t think that Mr. Felgenhauer or I can predict such things, because they depend on a whole combination of circumstances—military, political, and economic.

L.M.: How many years or decades do you think it will take for Russia and Ukraine to reestablish normal political, cultural, and social relations? And what conditions do you think are required for such a détente?

V.P.: I don’t think that this will ever happen, simply because I do not believe in the long-term existence of the current state that exists on the territories controlled by Moscow. I think that after the collapse of Vladimir Putin’s political regime, Russian statehood will experience a transformation and a new Russia will emerge that will irrevocably renounce both its imperial and its current Putin heritage. I am not sure that this new Russia will exist within the borders of the Russian Federation. This might end up being a post-Russian space with various kinds of state entities, the fate of which will depend more or less on their political and societal choices.

Ukraine is prepared to develop good neighborly and honest relations with a Russia that chooses the path of European and Euro-Atlantic integration and that recognizes Ukraine’s obvious contribution to the formation and development of Russian civilization from the 17th to 20th centuries. Ukraine is prepared to accept such a Russia as its partner. But Ukraine will never have good relations with a Russia that chooses to inherit a neo-imperialistic and neo-Nazi concept of development, a Russia that remains a product of Putinism. The post-Russian space will include a range of different kinds of states. Some of them will choose democracy and development and will seek the support of a European, strong, and confident Ukraine, just as today Ukraine is relying on the West for help and support. And we are prepared to be friends with and supporters of countries in the post-Russian space that choose this path of development.