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“Putin is Putting Europe on the Verge of World War III”: Ukrainian Intel General

March 24, 2014

The Parisian daily Le Figaro has run an interesting interview about the situation in Ukraine with retired General Ihor Smeshko, who is well positioned to understand the realities at play. Once a Soviet Army officer, Smeshko served as Ukraine’s military attache in the United States in the 1990s, was promoted to general, then was head of military intelligence (HUR) from 1997 to 2000. He subsequently served as chief of the Security Service (SBU), Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, from 2003 to 2005. While Smeshko is a somewhat controversial character, he remains active in politics and his insights on the current crisis merit consideration. The interview follows in toto, with my comments after.

Q: Moscow has annexed Crimea, and Ukrainian troops are to leave the peninsula. How do you feel?

A: I feel enormous humiliation. I have been an officer, first in the Soviet Army, then in Ukraine’s. Never could I have imagined what’s going on. Vladimir Putin is making a terrible mistake. In the long term, the aggression that Russia has committed will catch up with it, and will perhaps lead to its disintegration. What is more, I do not want to come out against Russia in general, nor do I want to lump the great Russian people — Tolstoy, Pushkin, and the others — together with Putin. Putin has opened  Pandora’s Box by breaching the bilateral treaty that recognized Ukraine’s frontiers in exchange for our giving up nuclear weapons in 1994. What will Russia do if China decides to protect the millions of Chinese already living in Siberia by annexing that territory? As I see it, Moscow is very afraid of a European-style democracy in Ukraine, which would put ideas into the Russian people’s heads.

Q: Putin is asserting that Ukraine is a geographical concept, not a nation.

A: Putin understands nothing about Ukraine. When he dared to claim that Russia won World War II without the Ukrainians, it was a terrible slap in the face. What about the seven million Ukrainians who gave their lives? Putin knows nothing about it and surrounds himself with servile advisers. He is unaware that the Ukrainians are old Russians, but bred on the freedom of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who never submitted to serfdom. He cannot conquer us, but he has wounded us and has thus fallen afoul of the nation that gave the Tsarist empire its best troops. I know something about that: We have been soldiers, father and son, for five generations on my mother’s side. Instead of acting with the European Union to help the young Ukrainian state become democratic and prosperous – to build a bridge between Europe and Russia and make de Gaulle’s fantastic dream of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals come true – Russia’s leadership has conducted military aggression against the territory of a sovereign state. It is placing Europe on the verge of a Third World War.

Q: Could the Ukrainian Army hold out in the event Russian troops enter eastern Ukraine?

A: Russia stands no chance of winning a war against Ukraine. To be sure, Ukraine is weakened by the twenty years it has spent laying the foundations of its state and by the total corruption of the machinery of that state. That is why part of the population has risen up against [ex-President] Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. Of course, we lack well-equipped divisions for the time being, but Russian ground forces are not in great shape. Russia has mobilized 150,000 men on our borders, but it’s not in a position to wage an offensive war against Ukraine or to occupy our territory. When the USSR fell apart, there was a highly trained military force of one million men here. Ukraine, for its part, has 700,000 reservists it can mobilize. Mobilization is under way. My twenty-one-year old son, who is a reserve lieutenant, has dropped out of university to sign up. If it persists in its adventure, Russia will stand no chance against a defense force of partisans.

Q: You say Crimea will remain Ukrainian, but former Georgian President Saakashvili said the same about South Ossetia.

A: We are not Georgia. For instance, part of the Russian nuclear shield is currently undergoing technical checks in a Ukrainian factory, Yuzhmash. We have not said to date that we are going to cease all cooperation, but that might change. Given our scientific expertise, we could even decide to resume building nuclear weapons.

Q: Do you believe Putin will invade Eastern and Southern Ukraine?

A: That will depend on two factors. One is the response capability of the Ukrainian government, which has to make an urgent decision to appoint experienced generals capable of organizing our defense to our top military posts as soon as possible, at the same time countering Moscow’s propaganda and provocations in the East of the country. For the time being, these appointments leave something to be desired, as I see it. The other factor depends on what’s going on in Putin’s head, as he is the sole decision-maker in Russia, where he has enslaved society by overwhelming it with propaganda. Will he settle for Crimea? I am a general, not a psychologist.

Q: What can the West do?

A: The West must remember what [Zbigniew] Brzezinski said, which was, basically: “The Russian Empire can re-emerge with Ukraine, not without it.” Ukraine has to be a bridge, not a part of the Russian Empire. No attempt must be made to appease Putin, as that will lead to the Third World War. Let us not repeat Munich.

Rousing words, to be sure, but does General Smeshko’s viewpoint, however experienced, reflect reality? He’s surely correct that there is enthusiasm for defending the homeland among average Ukrainians now, who are being subjected to Russian violence and propaganda that is deeply offensive to millions of them. He is, however, far too optimistic about recovering Crimea anytime soon, and his mentioning of possibly regaining nuclear weapons for Kyiv is foolhardy in this crisis.

Yet I concur that Kyiv desperately needs better leadership, especially in the military and security realm, than it has at present. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s mishandling of the Crimea situation does not inspire confidence in its ability to successfully defend the whole country against 150,000 Russian troops in any conventional conflict. However, it is certainly true that Russia is wholly unready for the ugly and protracted conflict it would inherit if Putin decides to invade and occupy Central – much less Western – Ukraine. Smeshko is likewise correct that the danger of World War III is real if the Kremlin opts for a military solution to the crisis it has created in Ukraine. Putin, who has indeed opened up the Pandora’s Box of nationalism in a manner that Russia is sure to regret someday, must decide if he wants to run that risk. The fate of Europe may depend on his choice.

15 Comments
  1. Chilling assessment !

  2. His enthusiasm for defending his country is to be commended, but I can’t share his analysis of how Ukrainian forces would perform in open conflict with Russian forces in both the east and centre of the country. Russian forces still have some way to go in respect to the reforms that they’ve initiated, but they are far from the pathetic state that they were in during the Chechen Wars, particularly the first. As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, the west of the country is an entirely different matter both in terms of Russian force projection, topography/geography, history/culture, and overall geo-strategic/defense issues.

    I find this comment troublesome:

    “As I see it, Moscow is very afraid of a European-style democracy in Ukraine, which would put ideas into the Russian people’s heads.”

    This is the General playing to his audience, in this case the French media and by extension, the West. The idea that “Euro-style democracy” is something that Russians might be tempted into seeking flies in the face of recent history both in respect to Putin’s popularity and especially (and I can’t state this enough) because western liberal democracy is inextricably linked to the disaster and shame of the Yeltsin years in the minds of average Russians. This is why the overwhelming opposition to Putin in Russia actually takes a stronger line against the West and against prevailing western mores. “Euro-style” democrats in Russia have the support of a tiny minority, with the rest seeing them as little more than western agents, especially when they collect money from western NGOs like the Open Society Institute.

    It’d be no different than seeing Americans on DC in the pay of Russians trying to lobby for change to the system on Capitol Hill.

    “Instead of acting with the European Union to help the young Ukrainian state become democratic and prosperous – to build a bridge between Europe and Russia and make de Gaulle’s fantastic dream of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals come true – Russia’s leadership has conducted military aggression against the territory of a sovereign state. ”

    This is a misreading/misinterpretation of history. De Gaulle sought a united Europe, but one with the UK and USA out. The General here omits the role of the USA in this crisis, one that cannot be denied. De Gaulle certainly would not have approved of those moves. Needless to say, Europeans do not want a single Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals since Russia does not want to be a part of Europe and because many countries in the former Warsaw Pact don’t want Russia back in Europe for obvious reasons.

    “Given our scientific expertise, we could even decide to resume building nuclear weapons.”

    This would be an incredible escalation and should be interpreted as an empty threat, nothing more.

    “The West must remember what [Zbigniew] Brzezinski said, which was, basically: “The Russian Empire can re-emerge with Ukraine, not without it.” Ukraine has to be a bridge, not a part of the Russian Empire.”

    It’s telling that he brings up Brzezinski. The Poles are more than open about pursuing the policies contained in “The Grand Chessboard”. But by having Ukrainians openly read from it, they only serve to fuel and justify Russian paranoia about the expansion of NATO eastwards. Add this to McFaul’s remarks/threats about independence movements within the Russian Federation and the desire to de-escalate the crisis is rendered impossible.

    • Smeshko is quite aware of his audience here. There is too much bravado for my liking. But most of his assessment is accurate, IMO. Bringing up Zbig B. is a like a red rag to a bull for Russians, but even Brzezinski lately has said Ukraine ought not be a NATO member, good call there.

      • I find Brzezinski eternally fascinating because he has taken a bit of an iconoclastic position on American foreign policy since 9/11, particularly in respect to Iraq. He hasn’t held firm to the hawkish line of the neo-cons when their views were all the rage, much to his credit.

        I’m sure that he is urging caution, if he has the administration’s ear, while others are screaming bloody murder and demanding ridiculous escalations, mainly those from the GOP.

        On a side note, his nephew Andrew (uses the spelling Brezinski) wrote a very, very interesting book called “Casino Moscow” about his time in Russia during the Yeltsin Era where he was a reporter for The Economist (or FT, I forge which) and saw firsthand the plundering of that country. He even goes at length on the topic of Boris Nemtsov, currently a western darling.

        Highly recommended.

    • Michael Lewis permalink

      As far as fueling Russian paranoia, how much more can it be fueled? Paranoia and xenophobia are part of the Russian psyche, and always will be. That and an historical bent for conquest makes the Russians a people who can only be contained by the one thing they have always understood: brute force ability, and the willingness to use it.

  3. mattw0699 permalink

    The General mentions how we should not appease Putin. Below is an article from Psychology Today about Putin. It suggests based on his psychology profile that appeasement is the worst thing one can do. And that’s pretty much what’s happening.

    The Danger That Lurks Inside Vladimir Putin’s Brain | Psychology Today – http://goo.gl/RNJGQf

    “But, after 15 years in power, psychological factors have to be taken into consideration in analysing Putin’s actions and, more importantly, in deciding how to respond to them. And contempt must be considered as one of the most important elements of his psychology. It is not only contempt for what he almost regards as weak—and, possibly in his macho world view, effeminate—western leaders. More important is his contempt for their institutions such as international treaties and laws.”

    “So how should the West respond? Psychologically speaking, the very worst response would be appeasement because this will simply fuel his contempt and strengthen the justification for his position. Strong consequences have to follow from his contempt for international law and treaties. This will cost the West dearly, economically speaking, but the longer-term costs of appeasement will make the costs of strong, early action appear trivial in retrospect.”

    Unfortunately, this psychology profile of Putin is inconsistent with the ideas of modern liberalism. That means it is more likely that the West will try to appease Putin than force strong consequences on him.

    • Is there any oil, diamond or other natural resources in Ukraine? NO. Why would the West bother to do anything other than dance around and bark pretending they really care. No vast interest to break out a war. They already encouraging Eastern European countries to expand their military budget and spend more money to buy weapons from the West. Very obvious and desperate to get something out of the current situation but that is all I guess. russians and ukranians are the same kind, their language is the same. They do whatever they want to do with each other who cares as long as others in the neighbourhood do not get hurt

  4. The Russian army are all shiny and new but do they have the real battle know how. Whilst the west have taken part in several campaigns over the last 25 years, Russia have had very little battle experience. Just saying.

  5. randallr permalink

    I admire how he distinguished between ordinary Russians and the government of the Russian federation. This is so tragic. Shame on Putin and his miserable US equivalents for bringing it to this point. Did Putin really say they won without Ukrainians? If true, what a cruel comment.

  6. Smeshko would have never become general in the former USSR. he is simply dumb and has got a personality of little Hohol who tenders to his pigs in the back yard.
    Putin stated that Russia won war because he doe snot see Ukraine as anything else but part of Russia. Integral part of Russia which it had always been. Few so called “independence” decades won’t change reality. Sooner or later Ukraine wil be part of Russia yet again, for her own good by the way too.

    • We’re not getting enough Kremlin agitprop these days, thanks for adding some!

  7. Daz permalink

    “Putin, who has indeed opened up the Pandora’s Box of nationalism in a manner that Russia is sure to regret someday…” Um, I think you’ll find that it might just be the Obama administration in alliance with far-right neo nazis in Ukraine who may regret waking Russia up out of its slumber – one that it has more or less been in since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I’m sorry to say this, but Russia isn’t instigating this. Aren’t we supposed to be the good guys?

  8. sociable7 permalink

    Interesting I guess. But I do think, its a game of bluff. Check my blog for my intake…

    If another war was to break out, who will ally who? Are you ready for World War 3? Check out the extensive post on: http://sociable7.wordpress.com/allies-of-2014/

  9. Seems : Putin thinks he has it all worrked out. I am an Irish Born Citizen. We have seen what this man is about. Ex KGB and his people think that they are invincible. Lets see how good they are.
    If Europe has any balls, they will threat this as mass murder of civilian people, by a group of murdering bastards who say they want to be Russisan. Send in Troops from Europe. Lets not fool ourselves by propaganga.
    After our Confict her in Ireland, i would urge all law abiding citenens of Europe, to up arms and defend our European Culture – Morals- Freedoom of Speech etc, in our democratic system.
    Big mistake supplying these militants with the technology to carry out this attrosity.
    Hope you live to to see the conclusion to this Atrustrosity Putin.
    You are not as clever as you would like to think, or are your Leutenants

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