As Ukraine and Russia complete an exchange of nearly 500 prisoners amid ongoing hostilities, American news outlets are reporting that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be open to ceasefire talks behind the scenes. But in Moscow, “That’s not how we see it,” says Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School and the great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. “Putin has been quite clear from the beginning that Russia is going to achieve all its goals,” and, despite international sanctions, the majority sentiment in Russia is that even ceasefire negotiations will result in the country ending the war “on stronger terms,” Krushcheva says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Wednesday, Ukraine and Russia exchanged nearly 500 prisoners in the largest prisoner swap since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly two years ago. Two hundred and thirty Ukrainian prisoners were exchanged for 248 Russians. The United Arab Emirates helped mediate the deal. This comes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia fired 500 missiles and drones against Ukraine in just five days. Zelensky spoke Tuesday night.
PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] Since the beginning of today, there have been almost 100 missiles of various types, and the trajectories have been specifically calculated by the enemy to cause as much damage as possible. This is absolutely conscious terror.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to intensify attacks inside Ukraine after a Ukrainian attack on the Russian city of Belgorod killed at least 25 people, including five children, on Saturday. He spoke during a meeting with wounded soldiers at a military hospital in Moscow.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] We, too, want to end the conflict as quickly as possible, only on our terms. We have no desire to fight indefinitely, but we are not going to give up our positions, either.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, The New York Times reported Putin has been signaling through his intermediaries behind the scenes that he’s open to a ceasefire in Ukraine.
For more, we’re joined in Moscow by Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New School, the great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. She’s the author of The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind and co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones. Her recent article for Project Syndicate is titled “The West Must Face Reality in Ukraine.”
Professor Khrushcheva, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let’s start off with the latest, the last week, Putin’s intensifying attacks on Ukraine, more than he ever has since the beginning of the war, yet we get behind the scenes, The New York Times is reporting, he’s signaling that he’s interested in a ceasefire. And then you’ve got this largest prisoner of war swap since the war began. Put it all together for us.
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you. Good morning.
Well, these are not connected incidents, I’d say. The attacks on Ukraine, the largest since the beginning, also in some ways follow the very large attack or attacks in the last week — last two weeks, I guess, on the Russian territory, because the Ukrainian forces also have been shooting, I think it was — one day it was 300 missiles. So it has been going on, escalating. And the reason it has been happening is we heard so much about Ukrainian counteroffensive really didn’t work out as it was hoped. Then the aid from the United States and Europe somewhat is stalling. And so Ukraine was showing that it’s fighting. So, of course, as Putin always does, the Russians fight back. So that’s what we’ve been seeing.
As far as The New York Times reporting on signaling on negotiations, that’s not how we see it here, because they made some signs and winks, but Putin has been quite clear almost from the beginning — actually, from the beginning, that Russia is going to achieve all its goals, so Russia is — especially now, when Russian forces are holding some territory. Some, Ukraine was able to take back, but a lot of it, Russia is holding. So, that’s the reality on the ground he has been talking about. So, yes, he always gives the signals: “As long as you’re able to negotiate on my terms, I am willing.”
And as for the prisoner exchange, yes, it was — for a while, that hasn’t been going on. But, actually, this particular part of the war, because we already had 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and there was some military action — this time the prisoner exchange actually has been going infinitely better. In fact, they were really trying on that front to keep with the war — with the war rules.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Khrushcheva, if you could say more about the prisoner of war exchange, how important it is? Because there, apparently — I don’t know how much is known about how many Russian prisoners of war are in Ukraine, but there are reportedly thousands, over 4,000, Ukrainian soldiers still in Russian captivity. And then also, if you could say, you know, what is the position of the Russian military now? There are some reports that suggest that a large number of the fighting forces, pre-war, pre-invasion fighting forces, have been wounded or killed, and now the main people who are fighting in Ukraine are former convicts and people who have been drafted, who aren’t very well trained. Is that correct?
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, not entirely. Thank you. Not entirely correct. As for — we don’t know how many thousands. On each side, actually, they have prisoners. And, of course, there’s always prisoner exchange. I mean, I just want to warn: I’m not a war expert. But what I’m seeing, prisoner exchange is always some sort of a — in many ways, always political manipulation. You give some, you take some. This is the largest one. Apparently, what I am reading, that I think it was 245, and 75 of them was not even negotiated. Somehow the Ukrainians just gave them back. And this is for a number of prisoners from the Azov Battalion. You may remember there was this very famous Azov Battalion associated with a kind of, you know, hard nationalist Ukrainian force, and there was a lot of arguments whether they should go free or not. And so, apparently, some of these people have been released from the Russian side. So, this is the — this is what we are hearing. Also, there have been — in December, there was a lot of talk that the new year is coming, and it’s important, and so we really have to have a good faith.
As for those who fight in Ukraine, of course, I mean, there’s a tremendous amount of casualties. We don’t know, once again, how many, but tremendous amount. But what Russia figured out, what the Kremlin, actually, sort of figured out somehow is that it’s not the conscripts, so these are people who voluntarily fight. And many of those who come in voluntarily fighting, they did have some military training. And then there is this Prigozhin we spoke about, I think, in the summer during the Prigozhin coup, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner chief who was first pardoned and then killed for his mutiny in June. He was the one who came up with that system, that the prisoners, violent prisoners, go and fight, and that’s how they become regular citizens, so to speak. So, a lot of them are in the army. They do go through some training. Russians, regular Russians, are very unhappy about that, because a lot of these people come back and then commit violent crimes. But at the same time, it allows regular people also not to go and fight, and that’s how kind of Putin was able — has been able to keep the semblance of sort of normalcy of the country at war, but not really the country at war.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Khrushcheva, if you could talk about what conditions are like within Russia in terms of both how the war is being perceived there, what ultimately the effect of the sanctions has been, what evidence you see of the effects of those sanctions today in Russia, and the fact that the majority of people there, according to polls, do not support the war, and yet Putin has over 80% approval ratings still? And speak specifically — actually, in one of your pieces, you talked about this rural-urban divide —
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Right.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: — how the war is viewed in St. Petersburg and Moscow as opposed to elsewhere in the country. If you could talk about that?
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Yeah, exactly. I mean, and that’s really a tale of two Russias. In the cities, people try to stay away, pretend it doesn’t happen, despite all the billboards and kind of volunteer places where you can go and sign up. And in the piece that you mentioned, you know, you go into a bookstore, and all those people who are foreign agents, the one that’s been branded as foreign agents because they have not been supporting the war, the writers, their books are available. You know, all of the sanctioned, you know, chips and Mars bars or something, all of this is available, so you kind of wouldn’t even know that there is war. And then you go deeper into cities. In Siberia, I was in Omsk, which is not very deep in Siberia, but far enough. And there, in the little villages, there are beauty salons all of a sudden just popping up, because the widows or those who are women who send their sons and husbands to war got a lot of money. I mean, it’s actually something that — that’s how the army now functions. People are being paid off. And these were poor regions. And now, suddenly, they’re washing off in money. They can go on vacation. They can have some summer trips to warmer places and so on.
And so, this is kind of the dividing — I mean, Russia has — I mean, the double eagle is its coat of arms. It’s always had this split personality disorder, this schizophrenia. But now it’s visible more than ever. In the cities, people pretend it’s far away, because they cannot stop it. But in smaller towns, in fact, the people are for Putin. They’re not for the war, but they are for so-called “Let’s show the West that we are not going to surrender” and whatnot.
And also I want to say that 80% is not a regular figure, but I would say that 60% is the support. And 56% want the war — want negotiations now, because they feel that Russia for two years withstood the sanctions, figured it out, how to move on, because sanctions are not that visible, except for the inflation and prices. But other than that, they just feel that now Russia can end the war on stronger terms.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we just have about a minute, but the title of your piece, “The West Must Face Reality in Ukraine,” if you can talk about what that is, what we are not understanding, particularly in the United States, and how this leads into the elections in March?
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, elections in March, I mean, when Putin is going to become president again, yes. We don’t call it elections, of course. It’s that, you know, Joe Biden declared that he is going to strategically defeat Putin because he cannot withstand the war. That has proven otherwise. In the piece, I call it the Stalingrad effect. You know, when the whole world is on Russia, is going to take Russia down, Russia sort of figures out how to do these things. And so, the quick victory, as Biden promised, over Russia is not going to happen.
I actually really don’t see how Russia can be defeated in this war. It’s a country of 11 time zones. And so, I suggest that one day there has to be some sort of scaling back this grand idea of defeating Russia, and figuring out how to actually end this war in the Ukraine, and then go on punishing Russia if you want, but the war should really not be part of that strategic agenda for the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Nina Khrushcheva, we thank you so much for being with us, professor of international affairs —
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — at the New School, speaking to us from Moscow. We’ll link to your piece for Project Syndicate, “The West Must Face Reality in Ukraine.”
Next up, we speak with civil rights leader Bishop William Barber, who’s calling for more awareness and justice for disabled people after he was kicked out of a North Carolina movie theater when he went to see The Color Purple with his 90-year-old mother. Why did the AMC call the police when he put out his special chair to accommodate his disability? Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: The cast of the new musical adaptation of The Color Purple singing the theme song, the movie based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. She was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.