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Talks to End War in Ukraine Are Collapsing as US Seeks Regime Change in Moscow

Both sides seem to be fixated on gaining military and territorial victories over diplomacy.

As the United Nations warns about the devastating global impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, talks to negotiate a peace settlement appear to have collapsed. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears determined to push forward despite a more resilient Ukrainian defense than expected, as both sides seem to be fixated on gaining military and territorial victories. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to pour millions of dollars in weapons into Ukraine. “It does seem that the United States thinks that Ukraine should be supported in its war effort, not its negotiation effort, until the very end,” says Nina Khrushcheva, professor at The New School and the great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. She also speaks about the current climate of civil society within Russia and the faulty intelligence that led Putin to decide to invade Ukraine.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times is reporting talks to end the war in Ukraine have collapsed, with Russian and Ukrainian negotiators further apart from an agreement than at any other point during the war. Russia claims Ukraine still has not responded to a draft peace agreement it submitted April 15th.

The Times reports Ukraine has been bolstered by a flood of weapons from the United States and its allies. The U.S. Senate is expected to vote today to approve an additional $40 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, leaders of France, Germany and Italy are publicly calling for negotiations to end the war. On Friday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote on Twitter, “There must be a ceasefire in Ukraine as quickly as possible.” He made the comment after a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron told the European Parliament Europe’s duty should be to achieve a ceasefire, not wage war with Russia. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi also embraced the pushing for negotiations to reach a ceasefire.

With the war in Ukraine now in its 85th day, we turn to Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School, co-author In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones. She’s also the great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Her recent piece in Foreign Affairs is headlined “The Coup in the Kremlin.”

Professor Khrushcheva, if you could start off by commenting on some European Western allies, like Germany, France and Italy, saying that there should be a negotiated settlement now, yet we see at this point it looks like the talks between Ukraine and Russia have collapsed? Can you talk about what’s happened and what you think needs to happen to bring this to a close?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you, Amy, very much.

Well, Germany has a bit of a kind of difficult road in trying to balance between Russia and Ukraine to a degree, because Olaf Scholz just now, just recently, said that Putin is not ready for negotiations, and Ukraine is not going to agree to a forced settlement. So, Germany, on one hand, does want to or does advocate for negotiated settlement; on the other hand, it depends — it almost seems like it depends who Olaf Scholz talked to the last moment.

I think Italy has come up with an interesting — I think it was five articles proposal of how you can negotiate. And it is possible, what I’m hearing at least today from Moscow, that Moscow is seriously looking into it. It’s not clear whether they are going to accept it.

It’s not clear whether the negotiations will rise up again, because, for now, it seems to me that both sides appear to want to have more military victories, or small victories as they are, and they think that for now they — for example, Russians feel that they can take a little bit more of Ukrainian territory, and Ukrainians feel that they can — for example, the Ukrainians just expelled the Russian forces from — the remaining Russian forces from the city of Kharkiv. So the Ukrainians feel that it’s possible that they can in fact free out some of the Ukrainian territory already taken, already taken by the Russians.

So, what we know from wars from time immemorial is that when there is a decision to keep on with taking territory, freeing territory, it’s very difficult — it’s very difficult to get to actual negotiations, because military wins, or military desire to win more territory wins.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nina, could you respond to those who say, “Let’s talk about the role of the U.S. in pushing for negotiations” — first of all, if the U.S. has been doing that? And second of all, respond to those who say that U.S. policy now has completely shifted: Whereas initially it was about defending Ukraine, it’s now about defeating Russia. Do you agree with that? And if so, what kind of defeat? What would defeat look like for Russia?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, thank you. I actually don’t think it’s shifted. I think it was pretty obvious from the beginning that the United States was — it didn’t expect Russia to be doing so badly, or the war going so slowly, in a sense, and Putin having less victories than initially expected. Remember the calculation on the American side that Kyiv would be — could be taken by the Russians in three days. I mean, you know, it hasn’t been taken at all so far and doesn’t seem to be in the Russian plans whatsoever.

But I think that the regime change, in a sense, was American idea right from the beginning. And that’s what the sanctions were, the sort of the consorted and massive sanctions, that the Russians call it the economic weapons of mass destruction, have been all about, kind of this idea that the Russians would get so traumatized that they would just get to the streets and sweep Putin away, or the oligarchs would get very upset because their yachts are taken away and then — and just go and have a coup.

So I don’t know if the United States’ position has changed. It became — probably became more vocal the more they talked to Ukrainians. And also, I mean, Ukrainians have shown — not that it was a surprise to me, I must say, but Ukrainians have shown incredible resilience. And so, when the negotiations were seemingly doing OK, the Russians withdrew from the areas of Kyiv. And that was — you know, for the Russians, they say it was the idea that they’re just going to help negotiations, but it was taken by the Ukrainian side and the American side as the Russian defeat, and then the more weapons went into Ukraine.

So I think the United States, it doesn’t seem to be interested, or at least I haven’t seen any interest in, in fact, negotiated position, because they do think Ukraine can win or should win, but also, as one of the anchors, American anchors, TV anchors, told me, is that: “How do we get rid of Putin?” And my response was, “We may not, because it’s not a Hollywood movie.” I mean, you know, not everything ends with a Marvel character victory. But it does seem that the United States thinks that Ukraine should be supported in its war effort, not its negotiation effort, until the very end, because the victories of Ukraine or not defeats of Ukraine are much greater than originally was expected.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nina, you mentioned now the sanctions, the sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on Russia, and what possibility they had to weaken Putin’s position. You are in regular touch with people in Russia. What are the effects of these sanctions on ordinary people? And what effect have they had on the regime?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, they couched — the regime has couched the sanctions well enough. I mean, clearly, there’s not enough — or there is no Western products whatsoever. I mean, I was told. I haven’t been in Moscow since then, but I was told there’s just gaping holes in all these luxury and nonluxury Western stores all over in Moscow and all over other Russian cities. So, that’s not a pretty picture. And it does seem to be very upsetting — not “does seem to be,” it’s very upsetting for the Russians. You know, McDonald’s, the symbol of kind of Russian global — Russia joining the global American formula, the McDonald’s shop, store — McDonald’s restaurant on Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow just got closed. But what Russians were able to do — and I don’t know how, you know, because it’s not really — it’s only three months. It hasn’t been enough time to really see the consequences. But that McDonald’s now is just going have a different name, and they say 90% of what McDonald’s was doing is going to be done there. So, the symbol of McDonald’s is gone, but the products may remain and still seem to be remaining.

But I think what it also does for the Russians is that they get very angry at the West. They’re angry at Putin for what he put them into, but when the West closed, I mean, it’s a summary punishment of all Russians, whether they support the war, and a lot of them do not support the war. And that makes them very angry at the West and very upset at the West, because they feel like they’re completely squeezed between the rock and the hard place. They have no place to go. They have no visas. I mean, they are given no consideration when they try to flee abroad. And a lot of them who did flee abroad at the beginning of the war, in February and March, now have to come back, because they can’t open bank accounts and so on and so forth. So I think that should be, in fact, something that U.S. and other Western countries should look into, is that how to actually bolster civil society that is remaining in Russia rather than completely killing whatever is left.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nina Khrushcheva, you wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs called “The Coup in the Kremlin: How Putin and the Security Services Captured the Russian State.” Why don’t you lay that out for us, and how you think it shapes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, thank you, Amy. It’s a really long piece. Well, I mean, Putin, as we know, was a KGB lieutenant colonel when he took over the position first of the prime minister in ’99 and then became president of Russia in 2000. So it was, in many ways, a KGB coup. And I start my piece with him joking, speaking to the security forces for their kind of unofficial, and then became official, holiday on December 20th, that the order — that the security forces’ order of infiltrating the highest echelons of political power in Russia is now achieved. So, that was a joke, but it was not a joke, because a lot of people who oversaw or have been overseeing, you know, oil and gas industry and the cosmos industry and so on and so forth, the bank industry, they were Putin’s friends and colleagues, former friends and colleagues from KGB.

But my argument is that what happened on February 24th is that it was, as I call it, an FSB-on-FSB coup, because before, even if the KGB people — and I call KGB summarily security forces people — were in charge, it was also kind of a handpick operation. You can push more, you can push back, but they were also understanding that Russia needs security, and it should be a very strong security apparatus, but it also should be part of the world. And therefore, it wasn’t really summarily being suppressed in any and all forms.

But on February 24th, some security officials, or many security officials, may not be ready. They were not — we know that they were not ready for that. It was Putin’s decision. And yet the collective security apparatus took it as a sign that now oppression in Russia is their primary consideration, because Russia is the state that needs to withstand the demands of the West or withstand the attacks of the West, the way it is being presented. And so, the functional autocracy that was there until February 24th now has been replaced through this absolutely blind, faceless security bureaucracies.

And that’s what this war in Ukraine, in addition to everything else, is all about. And so, one of the things that is interesting that, you know, there’s expectations that, well, if Putin is gone, it’s going to get better. Well, it may get less toxic; I don’t think it’s going to get better, because once security is in charge of Russia — we’ve seen it over centuries of history — in charge of Russia, it’s not giving its power that easily. So, Russia may be less toxic to the world, but it certainly be infinitely more oppressive within Russia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nina, could you say — you just said that the decision to invade Ukraine was Putin’s decision. On what grounds did he make this decision? Because many have pointed out that this was — of course, it’s catastrophic for Ukraine, but also catastrophic for Russia. What kind of intelligence were these security officials giving him that allowed him to make this decision, which appears to have gone — the invasion seems to have gone quite differently from how they might have imagined?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Absolutely. And that’s — I mean, I wrote about it in the piece, but I also wrote about it in previous pieces that I do — do a column for Project Syndicate — sort of explaining this, because Putin, as I said, a KGB man, so that was run like a clandestine operation, essentially. So only a few people knew what was going on. In fact, the army itself didn’t know when it’s going to go, whether it’s going to go full way into Ukraine or just the eastern parts of it.

But also, I mean, it is absolute power corrupts absolutely. Putin has been on top of the state for 22 years. They’ve been security forces that were feeding him information about Ukraine and its Nazi president or Western control, Western-controlled government, and how ordinary Ukrainians are suffering from that kind of Nazi-type oppression, because nobody really in their right mind believed that Putin would go and do this, because that really is, as you said, I mean, not only destroyed Ukraine, it also completely — and Ukraine will rebuild, and Ukraine will be better than ever, but Russia is just destroyed for decades, if not for centuries to come, because nobody is going to believe us that we are in fact going to become a normal country one day.

And so, that intelligence that was fed to him is the intelligence he wanted to hear. That is, Ukraine is just ready to fold and embrace Russia as their leader of the pan-Slavic state that somehow Putin imagined he would put together. And that is, I mean, I think — it’s not enough time has passed, but I think from when there is more time passed, it would be one of the most incredible research in history, how on Earth this complete disinformation, misinformation resulted in this catastrophic decision for — not just for Ukraine, not just for Russia, but also for the world at large.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nina, could you talk a little bit about the response within Russia, to the extent that you’re aware of it, not among the people so much as among officials? Earlier this week, there was a video that was widely circulated of a former Russian colonel who appeared to be critical of perceptions of the war in Russia and among the security establishment. This is a clip.

MIKHAIL KHODARYONOK: [translated] First, I should say, you should not take informational sedatives. Sometimes you hear reports of a moral psychological breakdown in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, that their mood is allegedly close to a crisis. To put it mildly, this is not true. … The situation for us will clearly get worse. … The biggest problem with our military and political situation is that we are in total geopolitical isolation and the whole world is against us, even if we don’t want to admit it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Nina, could you respond to that, especially given the fact that he was speaking on state television? And then he appeared again a couple of days later, just on Wednesday, and seemed to express a very, very different opinion, and so there’s been speculation that he was warned not to speak out in this fashion.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Absolutely. I mean, he was — good for him. He absolutely was warned not to speak out in this fashion and talk about the Russian isolation, because what we hear from the officials who — originally, on February 21st, when Putin announced that Russia would recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk republics, his security council seemed to be — I think we spoke about it on this program — seemed to be in a complete shock about it. But, you know, then they immediately — not immediately, but soon enough, kind of settled down, figured it out. Some were warned. Some were threatened. Some just didn’t have any other place to go, in a sense. And suddenly, whatever he is saying is now considered treason. And those officials who originally were in shock now are the ones saying that if you talk negatively about the Russian, as they call it, special military operation, or you talk about the Russian forces, the military forces, that are not advancing as fast as they should, that amounts to treason. Those who left the country and critical, that amounts to treason, and so on and so forth.

So, with the officials, there is some — I mean, clearly, there is inside dissent, but very rarely you can hear it publicly. And, in fact, more and more so, we hear from those officials, with absolute terror in their eyes, how they just now stand behind Russia, and motherland is something that is against the West and the United States.

Just now, the iconic, iconic character, Yuri Shevchuk, who was the icon of Russian hard rock, just had a concert in which — and before that, he spoke what motherland in fact means to him and spoke against the war. What happened after the concert, he was immediately detained. He was immediately interrogated. And now there is a lawsuit against him. And he is the icon of the Russian rock.

So, basically, it is a martial law that is not being announced as a martial law, but it affects everybody. It affects people who try to protest and can’t, because they’re immediately detained, the celebrities and, of course, the officials and the oligarchs. That’s why from the oligarchs, I think only three — and I write about it in my Foreign Affairs article — only three have actually spoken mildly or forcefully against the war, and the rest are silent and accepting. That’s the KGB force.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Khrushcheva,, you’ve studied Putin. Your book is In Putin’s Footsteps. What about the exposure of his family? It’s so rare to learn about, for example, the sanctioning of his two daughters, of his longtime girlfriend. What does this do to him?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Nothing. Nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you another question then. At the end of your book, since we have so little time, you talk about Kremlin officials saying that this will end the way the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in the late ’80s. What does that look like?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, that looks like they withdrew from Afghanistan after 10 years of a horrible war in ’89 with, you know, tail between their legs, completely humiliated. And as we remember, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. And so, that’s what those officials, who don’t speak publicly but sometimes speak to people like me, say they envision this regime will fall. What they don’t know is when that happens.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, before we end, I wanted to play for you a comment made by former President George W. Bush. It was Wednesday. He spoke at his Presidential Center in Dallas about the invasion of Ukraine, but the speech took an unexpected turn.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq — I mean of Ukraine. Iraq. Anyway. I’m 75.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s video of Bush’s comments. They’ve gone viral. The former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner responded, tweeting, “George W. Bush just admitted to being a war criminal of the likes of Vladimir Putin, then laughed. Sickening.” Professor Khrushcheva, your response?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I agree. And actually, the Russians have been playing that clip and, you know, with the comments, “Look who’s talking.” So, that’s what their response is, is that, you know, “You’re lecturing us on our unjust war, and look what you have done all around the world.” And I think, you know, I go back, as I always do, to my former mentor, George Kennan, who wrote an article in Foreign Affairs, too, in — I mean, “too” — wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in 1995, calling it un-American principles. And so, you know, when America does things like it did in Iraq, then people like Kim Jong-un, people like Putin would go in and say, “Well, America can do it. Why can’t we?”

AMY GOODMAN: Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs, New School, co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones, great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. We’ll link to your piece in Foreign Affairs headlined “The Coup in the Kremlin.”

Next up, we speak to the head of Brady, one of the oldest gun violence prevention groups in the U.S., about the status of gun control after the racist massacre in Buffalo Saturday. Stay with us.

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