Russian army officers speak out against a war with Ukraine

Veteran soldier Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov’s draft Appeal is an all-out attack on Vladimir Putin. So what will be the repercussions? And what message is the military sending?

Vladimir Putin has always fretted about his military top brass—former soldiers as well as those still serving. That is why, back in 2001, early in his tenure as Russia’s leader, he appointed Sergei Ivanov  to lead the Ministry of Defence (MoD). With his career in the Soviet-era KGB and its successor the FSB, and multiple career links to his fellow Leningrad/Petersburg state security man Mr Putin, Mr Ivanov was well qualified, in terms of both institutional affiliation and personal loyalty, to carry out the primary task set for him by his boss. Namely, to purge the military’s top ranks and subdue resistance to control over the army by the “siloviki” – as Mr Putin’s circle of security-connected allies are known.

And purge them he did. One of Mr Ivanov’s first acts was to fire 50 generals.

One of these was the then head of the MoD’s Foreign Cooperation Department, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov. He had started his career under long-serving Soviet Defence Minister Dmitrii Ustinov – acting as a senior aide to the latter from 1976 until the minister’s death in 1984. His final post was an influential one, which put him in charge of military cooperation with members of the Confederation of Independent States for much of the 1990s. Since his retirement, Gen Ivashov has written extensively on military and geopolitical matters—in fact, he has for some years been president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems. In short, Gen Ivashov is a figure to be reckoned with.

What goes around comes around, it seems. For this same Gen Ivashov has just published an attack on Vladimir Putin – the man behind his sacking 21 years ago – and his policies on Ukraine.

The attack takes the form of a draft Appeal to Mr Putin and the citizens of the Russian Federation, published on the website of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly (AROA), an organisation of retired officers of which Gen Ivashov is chairman. It is to be put to an internet vote by the organisation’s membership,

Entitled “The Eve of War”, the Appeal implies the imminence of hostilities and constitutes a last-minute attempt to avert it and bring the President to his senses.  And it is already sending shockwaves across Russia’s society, its political elite and its media. Putin’s media machine has almost instantly dubbed Ivashov ‘a traitor’, who should be sentenced and imprisoned.

So what did the general say that angered the Kremlin? And why does it matter? Well, several points are in order here.

First, a “stop the war” message may well chime with the public mood—or at least, the mood of a very substantial section of the public. When a high-ranking military expert reminds Russians that “war brings inevitable human sacrifices, destruction, the suffering of large masses of people, the destruction of the usual lifestyle, a breakdown in the lives of states and peoples,” that won’t be something that hasn’t occurred to most of them before. Even in their current muted and sanitised forms, opinion polls just don’t suggest public acceptance of a major war with Ukraine. They suggest quite the opposite.  51 per cent of Russians’ polled by VZTIOM – the state public surveys agency – refer to Ukrainians as friends, and 30 per cent more a take neutral stance. Which are not exactly the shares needed to support a war.

Second, Gen Ivashov is, to say the least, forthright. He wastes no time and minces no words in allocating blame. He is explicit about the Kremlin’s role in “triggering the catastrophe”, calling it a crime, as this war will not be a just one. Nor, he makes it clear, will it address any critical threat to the vital interests of the Russian state or Russian society.

“NATO does not directly threaten Russia’s statehood, its vital interest,… strategic stability remains, nuclear weapons are under reliable control, NATO forces are not increasing in numbers”.

The General also reminds the addressees of his Appeal that Ukraine is an independent state and a member of the UN and, under Article 51 of the UN Charter, has the right to individual and collective defence. Effectively, he’s telling the Kremlin that, if Russia wants a friendly neighbour, the worst way to go about it is first to threaten an invasion and then deny that neighbour the right to seek help in defending itself. He also points out that Russian-speakers would die on both sides in a war, an unwelcome reminder for Mr Putin—and a rather effective debunking of the pretence that Moscow would be on a liberating mission in such a war.

Gen Ivashov also mentions an interesting, often forgotten and, for Mr Putin, inconvenient truth: that the Russian Federation has not yet recognised the results of independence referenda held in the Russian-backed breakaway regions in Ukraine’s south-east, the (so-called) Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. In this way, he implicitly emphasises that their territories and populations still belong to Ukraine. As a result, says Gen Ivashov, the propaganda notion of ‘Kyiv’s genocide in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine’ [as an excuse for an invasion—IV], never rose in status to become a problem recognised within the UN or the OSCE.

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He also points out that the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol—the move that has been recognised by the Russian Federation—has not been recognised by the world and is therefore illegal under international law. Which is not a respectful way for a soldier to talk of what his Commander-in-Chief sees as his crowning achievement.

But potentially the sorest point of all for the man in the Kremlin—with his messianic tendencies and acute sense of his patriotic mission and his Place In History—is the General’s assertion that the real concern is that the Russian Federation has never become a role model for development or for foreign policy, and that war is not the way to ensure that it becomes one.

Which leads on to our third point. “Our real problems’, says Gen Ivashov, are homemade.

“Russia is a country on the verge of ending its history. All critically vital areas, including demographics, are steadily degrading, and the pace of extinction of the population beats world records”.

In other words, the General is changing the narrative of what matters in Russia today. And he’s in no doubt about who is to blame: the Kremlin is responsible for the crooked state model and the total incapacitation and non-professionalism of the system of power and governance.

Fourth, Gen Ivashov issues a list of warnings of what might happen that are about as inconsistent as they could be to what Mr Putin claims to be trying to achieve:

  • A war, he says, will call into question the existence of Russia itself as a state;
  • It will also make Russians and Ukrainians eternal mortal enemies;
  • It will also mean the death of “thousands of” (some versions in circulation say 50,000) “young, healthy guys”, affecting the future demographic situation and hastening the process of our” becoming extinct countries”.

The General also reminds Mr Putin of Turkey’s role in the Black Sea and Caucasus region, not to mention the peril that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses to the territorial integrity of Russia. For anyone with a sense of Russian history and the role that Turkey has played at various stages in it, this is resonant indeed.

Fifth, and finally, we should remember just who General Ivashov is. We are not talking here of some superannuated snowflake, nor of a bleeding-heart liberal. The General is a veteran cold warrior, an associate of the great Marshal Ustinov. He’s known for his trenchant criticism of NATO, which saw a rhetorical peak during the Kosova war (in whose aftermath, incidentally, he played a bold practical role). He hasn’t been notably dovish since his retirement either: in 2016, for instance, he spoke out in favour of Russian military involvement in Syria, on grounds to do with gas pipelines and the interests of both Gazprom and the Russian treasury. Finally, his chosen field in retirement has been geopolitics, whose practitioners are not known for their soft-heartedness—or soft-headedness.

Mr Putin must be profoundly stung and profoundly worried that he is faced by a man of such standing, of such unquestioned and unquestionable patriotic credentials, and of such commitment to the conservative ideals Mr Putin himself professes. And, let’s not forget, of such courage: for Gen Ivashov is running a tremendous risk: he will certainly be subject to harassment and most likely arrested.

Especially given the conclusion to the General’s draft:

“In our opinion, the leadership of the country, realising that it was not capable of bringing the country away from the systemic crisis, and that this could lead to an uprising of the people and a change of power in the country, with the support of the oligarchs, corrupt officials, captured media and the security forces, have made up their mind to intensify the political line for the final destruction of Russia’s statehood.”

“As Russian officers, we demand the abandonment of this criminal policy of provoking the war in which the Russian Federation will be alone against the united forces of the West …. and we call on Putin to resign under Art. 3 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation”.

Self-serving conspiracies with oligarchs and security officials, self-preservation at the risk of Russian statehood, criminal provocation of a war in which Russia will be isolated—all that and a call for the president to resign! How much further could the General have gone?

Now, whether or not Gen Ivashov’s brother officers adopt this appeal as their own is, in a sense, a secondary issue. The mere fact that a senior and decorated Russian general drafted it sends a strong message to the Kremlin, the Russian people and the world.

To the Kremlin, the message is that the military does not support it; that, if there is war, it will not be a Patriotic War; and that the Kremlin does not have a case that could motivate its troops to fight and kill other Russian-speakers on foreign soil.

To the public, the message is that, in the words of the classic slogan, “Mother Russia is in danger”. Not, however, from NATO, but from the Kremlin. By implication, Russians need to rise and fight for the survival of their country. And public unrest is both imminent and unavoidable.

To the world; the message is that the man in the Kremlin has gone wild, plans to embark on a war and, therefore, needs to be stopped.

To those struggling to make sense of what is going on in Russia, the Appeal hints intriguingly at turbulence under the surface of the Russian military ahead of a possible invasion. If Gen Ivashov is discontented, who else might be? And why? Soldiers have consciences, but they also have an aversion to wars they can’t win—and to the politicians that commit them to such wars. Might an invasion of Ukraine fall into this category? And, if so, what might serving officers do about it?

By the same token, we noted above that public opinion is very likely not well disposed to the idea of a war in Ukraine. Mr Putin can probably deal with that—up to a point. Disenchantment wouldn’t be immediately fatal for him. A quick victory without much loss of life might head off trouble—might even be popular. And even in the event of a longer and bloodier war he could rely for some time on his propaganda and repressive machine to subdue opposition.

But this could come at a prohibitive cost. Instead of replacing Ukraine’s government with a friendly puppet regime, a war could lead to an uncontrollable chain of events, in Russia and outside it, and ending with regime change in the Kremlin. This is a scenario that needs to be explored separately and at some length.

But for now it’s enough to notice the distinct possibility that, for the last few months, Mr Putin has been busily digging his own grave. And that Gen Ivashov might, just might, have triggered a shock wave that will actually bury him.

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