Russian opposition’s Ilya Yashin: "Russians who fought in Donbas may turn into aggressive opposition to Putin"

09:51, 20 February 2016
1438 0 Interview

Russian politician, deputy chairman of the PARNAS opposition party Ilya Yashin has said in an interview with UNIAN that the Kremlin now has full control over the occupied Donbas and explained why the Russian opposition is forced to participate in the parliament elections in the annexed Crimea at the same time condemning he very annexation.

One of the first ones in Russia to speak openly about the invasion in Donbas was the leader of the PARNAS party, Boris Nemtsov. Almost a year ago, just ahead of the release of his “Putin. War.” report consisting specific facts and names of Russian troops killed in the operation on Donbas occupation, Boris Nemtsov was shot dead right outside the Kremlin walls, for his bold statements and criticism of the Russian president. Nemtsov’s colleagues completed collecting evidence on Russian attack on Ukraine and released the finalized report. UNIAN got an exclusive interview with one of Nemtsov’s allies, Ilya Yashin.

Speaking about the Kremlin’s total control over the occupied Donbas, Yashin also told UNIAN how many lives of the Russians how many Russian lives every inch of the Ukrainian land is worth. According to him, a new report titled "National Security Threat," which will be presented in Moscow February 23, will unearth more evidence of engagement of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's army against the Ukrainian troops.

Yashin also explained why his PARNAS party, which strongly opposes the Crimea’s annexation, will nevertheless be taking part in the elections to the State Duma on the territory of the seized peninsula.

The first question is the most difficult for the Russian opposition. Preparations are starting for the elections to the State Duma, and PARNAS intends to participate in the campaign, including in the occupied Crimea. So, despite you being in opposition to Putin, you’re fine with the fact of Crimea’s annexation?

The issue of elections may appear a bit misleading. We must form regional groups throughout the territory of the Russian Federation, in a shape stipulated by the current Russian legislation. Therefore, we are obliged to form a territorial group in Crimea, otherwise we all won’t be able to take part in the elections. At the same time we have an absolutely distinct position: we believe that Crimea’s accession to Russia was illegal; we believe that Putin acted in breach of Russia’s international country. We believe that this problem must be solved.


But in order to participate in the elections and to fight for power, we are obliged to comply with Russian laws. This has been used against us, but it doesn’t change our stance. We have stated that the accession of Crimea is illegal, and we still do.

Aren’t you afraid of losing you voters, considering that the stolen peninsula is heartwarming to most Russians?

Of course, when the problem of the Crimea is raised, and we say things that are not in line with state propaganda, we become vulnerable to criticism in Russia. To a large extent, Crimea is the unifying issue for the majority of Russian voters. Nevertheless, our position is shaped not only by our adjustment to the environment, but also by some fundamental issues. We insist that the annexation of Crimea was illegal, despite all electoral expenses.

A year has passed since the signing of the Minsk II. In your opinion, what is the way to really reach the settlement in Donbas conflict?

The Russian government is trying to turn the Donbas into something like Transnistria, where the conflict is frozen and there are no visible ways to resolve it. Minsk agreements do not work, but they have been shaped in such a way so that they would never enter into force. Apparently, all contracting parties were well aware of that.


I am glad that the active hostilities have ceased. But the problem is not resolved, and the uncontrollable part of the Ukrainian Donbas will remain a hot spot and a stumbling block in relations between Russia and Ukraine, it is obvious. The problem is that Putin is not interested in resolving the situation. For Putin, it is very convenient to maintain leverage over the Ukrainian authorities and the European Union.

How expensive is it to maintain the occupied Donbas, considering the fact that there are many more inhabitants in Donetsk and Luhansk regions than in Transnistria?

The Russian authorities, the Kremlin, and Putin – they all have no strategic planning. They don’t think in terms of 10, 15, 30 years. They are considering the following two years maximum, that is until the next election.

Putin’s main task is to survive, to make it through this year’s parliamentary elections and presidential elections in 2018. So, all his calculations are made for the near future. And no one cares, what will happen to Donbas and how we will feed the Donbas people and fulfill our social obligations and replenish the budget after 2018. Neither the government nor the president does. Maybe oil prices will rise, maybe we’ll find some treasure, or maybe we’ll take a loan from China. At the moment, no one really thinks about it. The main thing is to retain power after the elections.

What is your attitude to the Russian citizens who went to Donbas to fight against the "banderites" and "fascists," and actually became the actual murderers and looters instead?

There were different people fighting in Donbas. I spoke to some of them while presenting the “Putin. War” report in different cities across Russia. Many veterans of hostilities in Donbas came to express indignation and outrage at our activities. I got the impression that some of them really are convinced imperialists - they went to Donbas up in arms, because they believed they fought for the restoration of the empire. Now many of them are disappointed.

Those who allegedly shed blood in the name of a great empire feel like they’ve been cheated: they do not understand why Putin did not pursue [the offensive] to Kyiv. People have realized that they’ve become a bargaining chip in the big global game between the Russian government and the West. This feeling that they were used, the feeling that their death was only an additional argument in Putin’s talks with the U.S. – it does not give them any optimism.

The Russians who fought in the Donbas may turn into a really aggressive opposition to Putin. It has not taken shape yet, it’s still very loose, but it is an obvious fact that there are a lot of discontent people out there, among the veterans of Donbas hostilities. Just look at Girkin and his entourage...

How many Russian military personnel and Russian mercenaries remain in Donbas?

According to my information, the Russian officers are in charge of military and administrative control. There are many Russian officers, including generals, as well as a significant number of Russian mercenaries and employees of the Russian special services. All that we are now seeing in Donbas: purging, the killings of uncontrolled militants - this is exactly the process of establishment of the Kremlin’s full control. In fact, we are talking about the fact that this area - the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” – is directly controlled from Moscow through administrative and military mechanisms.


On May 15 last year, you presented the report on the Russian invasion of Ukraine titled "Putin. War." Have you got any new data? Perhaps you could find out how many Russian citizens were left to lie forever in the Ukrainian soil?

I don’t have specific numbers. These data are protected as any state secret, so they are very fragmented. To collect such information, one needs to process huge amounts of data, most of which is confidential.

Nevertheless, we understand that we are talking about thousands of people who died in the battles. We understand that the Russian army was directly involved in the fighting in Donbas, not just mercenaries. It is a proven fact.

Russian generals and officers carried out operational management of combat missions. Putin, himself, coordinated everything, and he even took over personal command over a number of operations. In the end, the people who took the key decisions in the Ministry of Defense and the Russian government will have to bear responsibility for this undeclared war. A large number of people have died, including civilians, while citizens of other countries were killed in an MH17 tragedy.

We understand that the Russian army was directly involved in the fighting in Donbas / Photo from UNIAN

How critical to Russia are the Western sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion in Ukraine?

The Russian economy is very vulnerable, and it just does not correspond to Putin’s imperial ambitions. We depend on Western markets, the price of oil... Our economy produces almost nothing, and it is difficult to call it modern. Putin overestimates his power and reminds me of a poker player who has a couple greasy sixes, but acts as if he’s got the game. If the sanctions remain in place and the oil prices remain at $30-35, we’ll run out of our reserves this year or next. We will default on our social obligations, and then many people will perceive the events of the recent period very differently.

It might be easy to shout slogans like "Crimea is ours" when you get your salary or your pension. But Putin does not understand that the imperial pseudo-patriotism can’t be a smeared on a sandwich. And when the D-Day comes, people will not think about geopolitics, but about how to feed their kids and pay their bills.

Why did the intensive attacks start on Mikhail Kasyanov from the Russian media and the Chechen leadership?

PARNAS is the only party in true opposition that will participate in the elections. Kasyanov will top the list, so he is the target for propaganda and the Kremlin militants. He is the face of the party, and their main task is to discredit him by all means available, convince people that this man can’t be voted for. They douse Kasyanov in dirt to make him sit quietly at his office and not pursue any political activity. Elections in a country as vast as Russia mean mandatory trips to the regions and mass meetings with voters, especially in the environment filled with propaganda. There is a whole campaign set up on Kasyanov’s persecution, including physical assault, in order to stop him from such trips. Everything is done to intimidate opposition leaders and our supporters.

And could it be that the representatives of Chechnya, by attacking Kasyanov, will at the same time intimidate the rest of the Russian citizens? After all, the wars with the Chechens are still fresh in people's memory?

People may reminisce not so much of the war, but rather of the way the Chechen militants “dealt” with Boris Nemtsov. The authorities explicitly use Kadyrov and his team like some henchmen that can kill or physically hurt anyone upon command. A huge number of Russians hate it.

I think the Kremlin makes a very big mistake. The very fact of Kadyrov's confrontation with the opposition mobilizes a considerable number of people to support us – those who used to treat us with skepticism. They consider Kadyrov an enemy, so when Kadyrov calls us enemies, these people start supporting us.

How has Putin's rating changed recently? After the occupation of Crimea, it rose to its highs. What are the sentiments of the Russian society today?

Public opinion in Russia is arranged in such a way that people see no alternative to Putin. Even those who are critical of him wonder: if not Putin, then who? Over these 16 years, the Kremlin burned with hot iron the political space around Putin, creating the illusion of his irreplaceability. This has worked for many years, but I'm not sure that it will be working further on.


Objectively, Putin has been in power for many years, and there is this psychological fatigue; president is increasingly associated with his oligarch friends and corruption. If not for this Ukrainian campaign, which for him can end in Putin’s failure, no one knows what his rating would be. Had the trend of 2011-2012 continued, he would have been perceived by now as a leader of a gang of "crooks and thieves.” Now, for a certain number of Russians with a post-imperial syndrome, Putin became a national leader. But when the monthly salary will be issued in food, these sentiments will change.

Are there any nominees to become a president’s successor?

I do not think that Putin is considering any options for a successor, he expects that he will remain in power for a long time. And if we talk about an alternative, the 146 million people living in Russia. To say that one single person is worth occupying a leading position is a rabid Russophobia. For there to be an alternative, constructing a minimum basic institute of fair elections is needed. People who want to take part in elections must not be imprisoned, killed, expelled from the country. They must have an opportunity to speak to their voters telling them about their program, gain political experience and conduct coherent political debates. For 16 years, Putin has never taken part in political debates. Are there many state leaders around the world with the same attitude? Okay, he does not want to go for a debate with Navalny or Kasyanov, but he could at least run a debate with his pocket opposition: Zyuganov, Mironov...

Putin behaves as a weak leader who is afraid to lose. That is why he creates the illusion of no alternative.

Which groups of the Russian society were most affected with the collapse of the ruble due to the fall in oil prices?

The government, in the first place, protects the interests of big business; the subsidies are allocated for state corporations and state-owned banks. Ordinary people - state employees, retirees, currency borrowers – are those who are affected the most. The income level fell sharply. A striking example is Uralvagonzavod factory, which during the mass protests of 2011-2012 became a symbol of confrontation with the democratic opposition, when its workers held rallies in support of the government. Leaders of working groups proclaimed their readiness to come to Moscow - to physically disperse the opposition protests. Today, 5,000 people of 30,000 factory workers were fired due to the cut in production. Now those people who wanted to disperse the protests are going out on the streets to demanding protection of their social rights.


In Ukraine, people really like to reflect not only on their own future but also on the future of Russia. In your opinion, is there a threat to the very existence of Russia in the Kremlin’s aggressive policy as it keeps ignoring the internal problems?

I am a Russian patriot, and I do everything to protect the national interests of my country. I hope that such a tragedy as the collapse of Russian will not take place, though Putin is doing a lot for the state to collapse.

The only thing, in fact, that unites the Russian regions around the center, it is the price of oil. But, as we have seen, the oil magnet is not as strong. Putin has laid a time bomb: the state policy in the Caucasus, the destruction of local government in the regions, Moscow’s manual control over all subjects of the Federation, the inability to solve the problems by no means but the President’s hands – all of this leads to disorganization of Russia, rather than the centralization of power.

Any political crisis poses risks to the collapse of Russia, but I believe that the historical mission of the democratic opposition – is to save Russia and make it a normal, civilized modern state.

Roman Tsymbaliuk, Moscow

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