February 8, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  Putin again claims ‘denazification’ as war aim in Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to use an interview with American media personality Tucker Carlson published on February 8 to present to a wider Western audience a long-standing Kremlin information operation that falsely asserts that Russia is interested in a negotiated end to its war in Ukraine.[1] Putin illustrated throughout the interview that Russia has no interest in meaningful or legitimate negotiations, however, and that Putin still seeks to destroy Ukraine as a state. Putin also displayed his overarching hostility towards the West and falsely accused the West of forcing Russia to attack Ukraine. Putin repeatedly stressed that Russia is open to negotiations in order to falsely frame Russia as a reasonable actor and “Western ruling elites” as the main obstruction to a negotiation.[2] Putin also repeatedly reiterated a Russian information operation alleging that Western officials coerced Ukraine to reject an agreement favorable to Russia during negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul in March 2022.[3] Western leaders, in fact, offered to help President Volodymyr Zelensky escape Kyiv in the days immediately following the invasion, and Zelensky responded that he needed “ammunition, not a ride.”[4]

The Kremlin routinely frames the West as the only meaningful negotiating party in Ukraine as part of its effort to gain Western acceptance of its premise that Ukraine has no independent agency in order to secure concessions from the West on Ukraine’s behalf that undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and destroy Ukraine’s territorial integrity.[5] The Kremlin has periodically intensified this information operation feigning interest in negotiations to seize on actual Western interest in a negotiated settlement to undermine Western support for Ukraine and degrade Western efforts to send more security assistance to Ukraine.[6] Putin and the Kremlin have intensified rhetoric in recent weeks indicating that Russia continues to pursue maximalist objectives in Ukraine that ISW assesses would amount to full Ukrainian and Western capitulation.[7] ISW continues to assess that Putin’s negotiating position has not changed: He still seeks the destruction of Ukraine and seeks to use an armistice to set favorable condition for the Russian military to launch a subsequent more successful war against Ukraine. 

Putin also attempted to use the interview to absurdly reframe Russia as the wronged party and not the initiator of Russia’s unprovoked war of conquest against Ukraine. Putin falsely claimed that Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” started the war in Ukraine in 2014 and that Russia’s full-scale invasion is an attempt to bring that war to an end.[8] Putin repeated tired Russian rhetoric presenting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas in 2014 and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as a defensive campaign aimed at protecting Russian people and the Russia nation. This ongoing information operation is meant to obfuscate the obvious fact that Russia launched a war of aggression against its neighbor in 2022 in order to confuse Western memories of what actually happened. Putin’s revisionism also aims to bolster long-standing Kremlin narratives justifying his maximalist goals in Ukraine.

Putin continued attempts to justify Russia’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 as responses to Ukraine’s and the West’s actions in order to defend his long-standing calls for regime change in Kyiv and Ukraine’s “demilitarization,” “denazification,” and “neutrality.” Putin falsely claimed that a US-backed “coup” in Ukraine in 2014 forced Russia to invade Crimea and begin military operations in Donbas in 2014.[9] Putin falsely claimed that Ukraine initiated a military operation in the Donbas starting in 2014 and that Ukraine failed to implement the Minsk Agreements establishing the armistice that Putin broke in February 2022. Putin accused NATO of exploiting Ukraine in order to build military bases in Ukraine under the guise of training the Ukrainian military. There have not been and still are no NATO military bases in Ukraine. These narratives are aimed at buttressing Putin’s long-standing calls for Ukraine’s “demilitarization,” which are likely aimed at stripping Ukraine of the means to defend itself and allowing Russia to impose its will upon Ukraine through force whenever the Kremlin so chooses. Putin also reiterated that one of Russia’s war aims is to “denazify” Ukraine. Putin defined “denazification” as the prohibition of all neo-Nazi movements in Ukraine and the removal of people who support Nazi ideology. Putin specifically highlighted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as an alleged supporter of Nazi ideology, further indication that Putin’s calls for Ukraine’s “denazification” are in fact demands for the removal of the current elected Ukrainian government and its replacement with one acceptable to the Kremlin, as ISW has long assessed.[10] Putin continued to call for Ukrainian “neutrality”  and argued that Russia cannot trust any NATO statements about the alliance not allowing Ukraine to become a member.[11] Putin continued to claim that NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Declaration, which promised Ukraine and Georgia paths to membership but took no concrete steps towards opening such paths, violated Ukraine’s 1991 Declaration of Independence that declared that Ukraine is a neutral state. The Russian Federation, however, had committed “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” which include Crimea and Donbas, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for Ukraine’s return of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons on its territory to Russia.[12] The Budapest Memorandum guarantees Ukraine all sovereign rights, which include the right for Ukraine to choose its own alignment.

Putin continued to propagate pseudo-history in an effort to deny Ukrainian statehood and nationhood. Putin reiterated long-standing Russian information operations to deny the existence of Ukrainian statehood and identity. Putin claimed that Ukrainians fundamentally do not exist as a nation and that Ukrainians are truly Russians whom various political actors reinvented as Ukrainians to erode Russia’s ability to control Russia’s borderlands with other Eastern and Central European powers. Putin rewrote centuries of history to this effect. Putin has routinely denied Ukrainian sovereignty, statehood, and identity in order to frame Russia’s full-scale invasion as an attempt to return historically Russian lands to Russia and as a humanitarian effort to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers whom Russia calls “compatriots abroad.”[13] Putin has also regularly and intentionally misused the definition of “ethnic Russian” to erroneously include Ukrainians in order to promote the larger concept of the wider Russian World (Russkiy Mir) to justify Russia’s maximalist claims over Ukraine and its people and its larger imperialist ambitions.[14] None of Putin’s rewriting of history justifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The borders of every state in the world have changed over time. International law, which Putin claims to seek to uphold, requires the recognition by all states of each other’s sovereign rights in their territories as recognized by other sovereign states. The Russian Federation has explicitly recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty over its current international borders twice—in 1991 and in 1994. Accepting Putin’s argument for Russia’s right to redesign Ukraine’s borders to his liking by force is an invitation to all powerful states with historical grievances to attack and seize the lands of their neighbors that they covet.

Putin also reiterated a quasi-realist world view that defines weakening the West and dismantling NATO as pre-requisites for the Russian-led multipolar world he desires to create. Putin consistently framed NATO’s expansion and existence as threatening to Russia and any future Russian- and Chinese-led global order.[15] Putin claimed that world affairs develop according to “inherent laws” that have not changed throughout history wherein a country grows and becomes large and powerful before leaving the international stage without the prestige it once had. Putin implicitly analogized the current Western-led world order with the Mongol and Roman empires, which he presented as examples of hegemonic powers that were eventually conquered by other rising powers. Putin stated that while it took several hundreds of years for the Roman Empire to fall apart, current processes of change are happening at a faster rate. Putin is increasingly invoking a purposefully broad, vague, and pseudo-realist conception of Russian sovereignty to normalize wars of conquest and justify Russian goals to impose Putin’s will in Ukraine and beyond.[16] Putin has long made demands of NATO that would recreate the alliance into a structure that could not resist future Russian military aggression, whether that be campaigns of conquest or efforts to establish Russian control over countries the Kremlin deems to be within Russia’s sphere of influence.[17]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky replaced General Valerii Zaluzhnyi with Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi as Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief on February 8, as part of wider military leadership changes.[18] Such changes are normal for states engaged in a protracted war. Zelensky stated that he is also considering Ukrainian Brigadier General Andrii Hnatov (current Chief of Staff and Deputy Commander of the Southern Operational Command), Brigadier General Mykhailo Draptayi (former commander of the Kherson Group of Forces), Brigadier General Ihor Skybiuk (current deputy commander of the Airborne Assault Forces), Colonel Pavlo Palisa (current commander of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade) and Colonel Vadym Sukharevskyi (current commander of the 59th Motorized Infantry Brigade) for leadership positions in the Ukrainian military.[19]  Zelensky, Zaluzhnyi, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov all acknowledged that the war has dramatically changed between 2022 and 2024 and that new approaches and strategies are necessary.[20] Zelensky stated that he offered Zaluzhnyi an unspecified position on the “management team” for the Ukrainian Armed Forces but did not clarify if Zaluzhnyi accepted.[21] Advisor to the Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Mykhaylo Podolyak stated that Zelensky decided to conduct a “systemic renewal of the leadership” of the Ukrainian military, including the commander-in-chief, in order to review the Ukrainian military’s actions in the past year, prevent stagnation on the front, find new functional and technological solutions that will allow Ukraine to maintain and develop the battlefield initiative, and begin the process of reforming the management of the Ukrainian military.[22] Command changes are normal for a state fighting a war over several years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a routine phone call on February 8 that underscored China’s hesitance to support Russia’s desired bilateral Russo–Sino relationship while Russia forges deeper partnerships with Iran and North Korea. Putin and Xi exchanged views on the geopolitical situations surrounding Ukraine, Taiwan, and the Middle East and reiterated their commitments to further bilateral trade and foreign policy cooperation.[23] Putin and Xi also reportedly criticized US interference in the internal affairs of other countries and US policies aimed at containing Russia and China.[24] Russian media coverage of the conversation continued efforts to portray Russian-Chinese relations as steadfast and at their “best period in history” despite recent Chinese attempts to avoid fully committing to a “no limits” partnership with Russia in the face of Western sanctions.[25] Bloomberg reported on January 16 that at least two state-owned Chinese banks ordered reviews of their business with Russian clients and will sever ties with sanctioned Russian entities and entities with ties to the Russian defense industry after the US authorized secondary sanctions against financial institutions in December 2023.[26] The Kremlin has recently signaled increased rhetorical support for and economic cooperation with Iran and North Korea as its dependence on both countries for drones, missiles, and ammunition grows.[27] Iran has consistently supplied Russian forces with Shahed-136/-131 drones throughout the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and North Korea recently began supplying Russia with domestically produced ballistic missiles and artillery ammunition.[28]

Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted a one-to-one prisoner of war (POW) exchange on February 8. Ukrainian and Russian military officials stated that Russia and Ukraine exchanged 100 Ukrainian POWs for 100 Russian POWs.[29] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) helped to facilitate the POW exchange.[30]

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that it recently conducted a cyberattack against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) preventing Russian forces from automatically operating an unspecified number of likely first-person view (FPV) drones. The GUR reported on February 8 that GUR hackers disabled Russian MoD servers that allowed Russian forces to automatically and remotely control Chinese-brand drones, forcing Russian forces to operate the drones manually.[31] The GUR did not specify the number of drones that the GUR cyberattack affected. ISW has recently observed an increase in reported Ukrainian cyberattacks against Russian targets but has not yet observed Russian sources discussing the aftermath and effects of these attacks.[32]

The Russian Central Election Committee (CEC) refused to register Boris Nadezhdin, the only anti-war Russian presidential candidate, for the March 2024 presidential election likely due to his larger-than-anticipated popularity.[33] The CEC stated that it refused to register Nadezhdin due to the high percentage of alleged fraudulent signatures that he collected in his bid to register as a presidential candidate.[34] ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin could have chosen to allow Nadezhdin to run so that Putin could turn his assured reelection into a quasi-referendum on Russia‘s war in Ukraine, but the Kremlin may have reversed course on letting Nadezhdin participate after Nadezhdin  demonstrated that he might gain too many votes.[35] The Kremlin likely waited to use the CEC’s valid-signature requirement to end Nadezhdin’s campaign in order to continue promoting the masquerade that Russia conducts free and fair elections.

The CEC has approved four presidential candidates to run in the March 2024 election, and CEC Chairperson Ella Pamfilova stated on February 8 that they would be the only four candidates on the ballot.[36] Russians will nominally have a choice to vote for Putin or other controlled opposition candidates: Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Leonid Slutsky, Communist Party member Nikolai Kharitonov, and New People Party member Vladislav Davankov.[37] Putin’s controlled reelection is certain and will likely occur by a predetermined large margin.

Some Russian and Ukrainian sources claimed that Russian forces are using Starlink in occupied Ukraine.[38] A Ukrainian-language source claimed that Russian forces purchased Starlink access via Dubai, United Arab Emirates.[39] ISW cannot independently confirm any of these claims. Starlink stated that its operator aerospace company SpaceX does not do business of any kind with the Russian government or Russian military and has never shipped, marketed, or sold Starlink’s services or equipment to Russia.[40] Starlink stated that it does not operate in Dubai and “has not authorized any third-party intermediaries, resellers or distributors of any kind to sell Starlink in Dubai.”[41]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to use an interview with American media personality Tucker Carlson published on February 8 to present to a wider Western audience a long-standing Kremlin information operation that falsely asserts that Russia is interested in a negotiated end to its war in Ukraine. Putin illustrated throughout the interview that Russia has no interest in meaningful or legitimate negotiations, however, and that Putin still seeks to destroy Ukraine as a state. Putin also displayed his overarching hostility towards the West and falsely accused the West of forcing Russia to attack Ukraine.
  • Putin also attempted to use the interview to absurdly reframe Russia as the wronged party and not the initiator of Russia’s unprovoked war of conquest against Ukraine.
  • Putin continued attempts to justify Russia’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 as responses to Ukraine’s and the West’s actions in order to defend his long-standing calls for regime change in Kyiv and Ukraine’s “demilitarization” “denazification,” and “neutrality.”
  • Putin continued to propagate pseudo-history in an effort to deny Ukrainian statehood and nationhood.
  • Putin also reiterated a quasi-realist world view that defines weakening the West and dismantling NATO as pre-requisites for the Russian-led multipolar world he desires to create.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky replaced General Valerii Zaluzhnyi with Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi as Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief on February 8, as part of wider military leadership changes. Such changes are normal for states engaged in a protracted war.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a routine phone call on February 8 that underscored China’s hesitance to support Russia’s desired bilateral Russo-Sino relationship while Russia forges deeper partnerships with Iran and North Korea.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted a one-to-one prisoner of war (POW) exchange on February 8.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that it recently conducted a cyberattack against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) preventing Russian forces from automatically operating an unspecified number of likely first-person view (FPV) drones.
  • The Russian Central Election Committee (CEC) refused to register Boris Nadezhdin, the only anti-war Russian presidential candidate, for the March 2024 presidential election likely due to his larger-than-anticipated popularity.
  • Some Russian and Ukrainian sources claimed that Russian forces are using Starlink in occupied Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna and Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Kreminna, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City amid continued positional fighting along the entire line of contact on February 8.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) proposed a draft bill on February 8 to establish a single maximum age for contract service personnel (kontraktniki) during a period of partial mobilization, martial law, or wartime.
  • Russian authorities are likely setting conditions to falsify voting results in occupied Ukraine in the March 2024 presidential election.
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