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Q & A with a Russian warfare expert: ‘This is not a proxy war’ with the U.S.

By Christy Somos, CTV National News Associate Producer

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    TORONTO (CTV Network) — Ukraine could see a major new offensive from Russia on the anniversary of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s defence minister said Thursday.

Oleksii Reznikov told the French BFM network that Moscow had amassed and mobilized thousands of troops for the potential attack, which may start as early as the end of February.

A Wednesday night rocket attack in Kramatorsk that killed three people and wounded at least eight others, reported by Ukraine’s presidential office, serves as a reminder of the civilian cost of the war.

As Ukraine prepares for the possibility of a spring offensive, CTV News sat down with senior consulting fellow of the Russian and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, an independent policy institute in London, U.K., author and Russian warfare expert Keir Giles, on Wednesday to discuss the conflict.

Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length, clarity and brevity.

Q: The anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine is coming up on Feb. 24. What are you expecting to see from Russia?

Giles: I expect we’ll see some demonstration from Russia of the way that it can do damage to Ukraine. I expect that we will see something which is linked to the one-year anniversary, but I don’t expect it to change the overall nature of the conflict, because it’s been clear for a long time this is not going to be a war that is decided on the battlefield. Instead, it’s the steady grinding on of Russia’s campaigns to try to prevent Ukraine from being able to function as a state that will decide whether or not Russia wins, because Ukraine has to capitulate. And that’s one of the reasons why Western support for Ukraine is so vital, not only in terms of delivering weapons systems, which is what gets all the attention, but also all of the other measures, the international solidarity, the humanitarian aid, the economic aid above all that Ukraine needs in order to stay in the fight.

Q: Speaking of Western support for Ukraine, Ukraine finally got some Leopard 2 battle tanks from Poland and from Canada, Why now? And how much of a difference will they really make on the battlefield?

Giles: There does seem to be a consensus among the military analysts who are studying this conflict closely, as well as Ukraine’s own officials, that now is the moment when main battle tanks from the West will make a significant difference. Now, there are two key elements of the upcoming campaigns that are going to be important. First of all, it is whether Ukraine can push forward to continue to liberate its occupied territories and, most importantly of all, liberate the people living within them from this savage Russian occupation with the eventual aim of evicting Russian troops from Ukrainian territory altogether. But also, Ukraine says these Western main battle tanks are important for resisting Russia’s own planned spring offensive, and it’s likely that this will be a slightly different offensive in character to what we’ve seen in fighting over the last few months, because part of the cadre of personnel that Russia has mobilized in order to throw them into the fight was deployed with the very little training on to the front lines. The other part has been held up for more systematic training in preparation for an offensive in the spring. And Russia will undoubtedly deliver additional force against Ukraine then.

Q: How long will the war last?

Giles: We have no way of knowing how long the war will last, because it depends on how willing Western countries are to recognize that for Ukraine to win is vital for their own security. Once that realization permeates across the board in Western countries – and is accompanied by a realization that they have been very successfully deterred by Russia from supporting Ukraine fully on entirely spurious grounds, and once the full force of the West is actually thrown in behind Ukraine, enabling it to push forward and win this war – the resolution could be really quite rapid. But it all depends on that international solidarity and the political will in Western countries to realize what is at stake.

Q: What do you say to people who believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aims are limited to Ukraine and that other countries are engaging in a type of “Red Scare” to say their democracies are at stake?

Giles: It’s true that people do sometimes say that Putin’s aims are limited to Ukraine, and they’re not going to push forward with other countries that formerly were part of the Russian empire that now feel themselves to be under threat. Now, those people are the ones who have not paid any attention to what Putin himself has been saying. If you look at his program and how his political aims have developed over time, it’s absolutely clear that Ukraine is just the first step among many. And all of the small countries around Russia’s western periphery are under threat.

Q: Is this Putin’s war?

Giles: Putin is not inventing all of the ideas that he’s pursuing in his campaign against Ukraine. Instead, he’s enacting some very deep-seated assumptions within Russian society, not just the political elite, but the country as a whole, about Russia’s place in the world and its entitlement to govern over countries that we think of as being separate sovereign, independent nations like Ukraine. He is not inventing it. Russia today isn’t a product of President Putin, it’s the other way around. President Putin is just putting into action all of the assumptions that have widely held within Russia about what Russia should be.

Q: What does Putin want?

Giles: One of the ways in which the job of people like me, people who explain Russia for a living, has been made immensely easier after the beginning of this latest phase of the conflict in Ukraine is that we no longer have to explain what President Putin wants because he has said so himself so very clearly. He wants to correct what he sees are the historical mistakes made 100 years ago when the Bolsheviks, the early communists, set up these independent republics based on nationalities that formed the basis of the countries that we now think are sovereign nations around Russia’s periphery. He says this was a mistake because these countries do not have a right to exist and the peoples within them do not have a right to an independent existence not being governed by Moscow. So his program, as he set it out is to put that right.

Q: There are some who say this is a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia. What is your response to that?

Giles: It’s very misleading to call this a proxy war in the sense that this is a war waged by the U.S. Look just at the ways in which the U.S. has been so very reticent to throw its full weight behind Ukraine. The campaign of deterrence by Russia has been so effective that the U.S. has been very restrained. By comparison, of course, that delivers a greater weight of weapons assistance into Ukraine. But if you look at the proportion of capability of each country, it is lagging far behind. It is the front-line states that recognize what is at stake, that recognize that if Russia is not stopped in Ukraine, they are likely to be next, that have donated vastly more, by proportion, of their arsenals and also in terms of economic and humanitarian aid, than has the United States.

Q: How real is the nuclear threat?

Giles: It’s not.

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