Following a wave of peace rallies held across the globe this weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has agreed to diplomatic talks with Russia. This comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin placed Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert on Sunday, citing increasingly tightened international sanctions. We speak with Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, who says it’s not clear whether Putin is using a nuclear threat to topple the Ukrainian government or pressure them into a deal. Lieven also speaks about Belarus’s support of the Russian invasion and argues future protests inside Russia against the war will be greatly influenced by Western sanctions.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.
As we continue to look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the international response, we’re joined by Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, the author of numerous books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.
Anatol, I want to begin by asking about Russian President Vladimir Putin placing Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert. He justified the move by citing the increasingly tightened international sanctions. This is Putin speaking Sunday.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] Not only do Western countries take unfriendly measures against our country in the economic dimension — I mean the illegal sanctions that everyone knows about very well — but also the top officials of leading NATO countries allow themselves to make aggressive statements with regards to our country. This is why I order defense minister and chief of general staff to put Russian army deterrence forces on high combat alert.
AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven, can you respond to the latest news and to Vladimir Putin’s statement?
ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, Putin is obviously trying to frighten the West, you know, to frighten the West into reducing aid to Ukraine, and also, of course, to make sure that there is no question of the West itself intervening militarily in Ukraine. But I suppose, I mean, that we might hope that this would create a backlash in Russia itself against Putin, because, after all, you know, this does raise the possibility of nuclear annihilation — not, I think, you know, that Putin has any intention of firing these missiles, but it certainly raises the rhetorical stakes very greatly.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you think he would launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine?
ANATOL LIEVEN: I was — I mean, it’s been clear, since the Russian forces were assembled on the border back in December, that this was a possibility. What has surprised me — because, frankly, it surprised all the analysts I know in Moscow — is the fact that instead of occupying limited areas of Russian-speaking Ukraine in the east and south, Putin has ordered the Russian army to go straight for Kyiv. Whether this is to try to overthrow and replace the Ukrainian government with a puppet government, or whether, in the first instance, Putin is hoping to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to make a deal with Russia, that’s not entirely clear. At least, I mean, it would seem from the talks in Belarus that Moscow hopes to be able to pressure the Ukrainian government into a kind of surrender on terms, but, of course, some — it is very unclear that that will be possible.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the significance of the Belarus referendum this weekend and also the fact that it looks like Belarus is poised to send troops in, joining the Russian troops, and what it means for Ukraine to be meeting with Russia on Belarus soil, which initially Zelensky refused to do.
ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, ever since the major protests against Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus erupted in response to the last rigged Belarusian elections, and since the West supported those protests against Lukashenko, Lukashenko has clearly felt that he has absolutely no choice but to side completely with Putin and with Russia. Previously, Lukashenko tried to draw a certain distance between himself and Putin, and there were actually considerable tensions between them. But now Lukashenko seems to think that Putin is his only chance of survival. How much of the Belarusian army he will commit, I don’t know. I do not think that this will be at all popular in Belarus, if large numbers of dead bodies came back. But, once again, I mean, Lukashenko is under so much pressure, he may feel he has no choice.
The talks, well, the first Russian demand, that Ukraine should declare neutrality, I mean, to be completely honest, that ought not to be difficult for Ukraine to grant, for the simple reason that the West has stated absolutely clearly that it will never fight to defend Ukraine. It will never risk war with Russia to defend Ukraine. Well, at that point, the West will never admit Ukraine to NATO. You know, it’s a contradiction in terms. So that ought to be possible. And indeed, I mean, President Zelensky of Ukraine has complained in public, very understandably, about the West’s unwillingness to fight.
The other Russian conditions are more difficult, and one of those is what the Russians call denazification, which appears to mean that the Ukrainian government should itself suppress and crush the extreme nationalist forces that you mentioned, the Azov Battalion and others. Demilitarization means, of course, a complete break with any kind of military ties with the West.
And then there is the question — and we’re not sure whether this will be the case, but whether the Russians would insist on Ukrainian recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the independence of the Donbas. That has not been part of the official Russian demand yet in public, but one can well imagine that that might be what the Russians would demand when the talks begin. And that would be — well, look, from a standpoint of reality, Ukraine is not going to get Crimea back ever and, indeed, would not know what to do with it if it did, because it would obviously increase, you know, a recalcitrant Russian population in Ukraine. And the only way it can get the Donbas back is on the basis of a treaty of federation with complete autonomy for the Donbas. And so far Ukraine has been completely unwilling to do that, either. Whether Ukrainian feelings are shifting on that, we will have to see.
And then we will have to see whether in fact the Russians will go on to try to create a puppet government in Kyiv. If they do, they will be total idiots, because, I mean, it’s absolutely clear that this will never work for Russia.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the level of protest inside. I was talking about the spokesperson, 24-year-old daughter, Lisa Peskova, you know, “No to war,” issuing that on her Telegram. Six thousand Russians arrested in these massive protests across Russia. Berlin, what, somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people protesting. But the risks people are taking within Russia, did you expect this level of protest? And how will Putin deal with this? They’re trying to control the information enormously, what gets into Russia, but clearly that’s breaking down. You even have now Meta, Google, and I think it’s YouTube, that are cutting off Russian-paid — the Russian ad revenue from their sites, their platforms?
ANATOL LIEVEN: Yes, well, I did expect protests, but I think future protests will be greatly influenced by the Western sanctions that have been brought in, which will hit not just ordinary Russians but will really hit those educated Russians, you know, who have got used to traveling to the West, to studying in the West, to going on holiday in the West. And that, of course, includes the children of the Russian elites. And we should remember that it was the revolt of the children of the communist elites in the 1980s which helped bring down the Soviet Union. So I think this is something that Putin has to be very, very worried about.
And also, of course, you know, it’s one thing to arrest demonstrators on the street, but when the children of your top officials start cursing those officials over the breakfast table, then, of course, you might see the beginning of the crumbling of the regime from within, especially, of course, if the Russian economy really, as a whole, declines as a result of these Western sanctions, and if the Russian war on the ground, rather than producing the quick result which Putin obviously hoped for, in fact drags on into a bloody quagmire.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, and we just have 30 seconds, do you see this as Putin rationally reacting to NATO expansion, or just Russian imperialism?
ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I mean, it’s Russian nationalism. You know, let’s be fair: America has sometimes reacted very, very badly to what, objectively speaking, have been relatively minor threats. So, the question is just how committed the Russian elite, as a whole, is to what looks like becoming a horribly costly war for Russia.
AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven, we thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, author of numerous books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.
Coming up, President Biden nominates Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. Stay with us.