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Interview: War journalist says ‘nothing will change in Russia until it’s defeated in Ukraine’

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
September 12, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Jonathan Littell is a French-American writer and journalist. His 2006 novel, The Kindly Ones, which tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of one of the executioners, was critically acclaimed. In the 1990s, he was in Grozny during the First Chechen War and in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia during the second conflict. For France’s Le Monde newspaper, he also covered the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, which started in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, killing hundreds and displacing thousands.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service on the 15th anniversary of the war, Littell said the West was slow to react in the past to Russian aggression but has now belatedly “woken up.” He explained why there is no other choice than defeating the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine if change is ever to come to that country.

RFE/RL: Fifteen years on from the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, what’s the first thing that pops up in your mind? What is one enduring image, if there is one, about that war that has stuck with you over the years?

Littell: There are several. Obviously, Russian troops occupying Gori is an enduring image. Russian checkpoints on the main [route] between Tbilisi and Gori. The destruction in the villages between Gori and South Ossetia, which we visited with other correspondents. But mostly, I would say, the sheer shock of the Georgian population that this would be happening, that suddenly their country would be caught in an actual war with their giant neighbor. I think that was extremely terrifying to most people.

RFE/RL: Looking back now, if you were asked to write about that war, what would you focus on?

Littell: One thing that had struck me during the Georgian conflict, [after having much] experience in Chechnya with war: I was very familiar with the Russian Army and its behavior, its practices, its levels of discipline or lack of levels of discipline: violence, alcoholism, torture, mass kidnappings, disappearances, illegal executions, and so forth. So I was extremely surprised in Georgia about how well behaved the Russian Army was, how professional it suddenly seemed compared with the guys I knew from the two Chechen wars.

I spoke with special forces soldiers who were into this cult of fitness — not drinking, not smoking — which is the first time I had seen Russian soldiers behaving like that. And even the ordinary soldiers, such as the ethnic Caucasians who were guarding the checkpoints on the road between Tbilisi and Gori, were extremely well behaved, extremely polite, extremely normal, just doing-their-job soldiers, and I found that a huge difference from what I was used to in Chechnya.

I was thinking at the time: Has the Russian Army really evolved? As we’ve seen with the Ukraine war, this was a completely false impression. The only thing I would change about what I was writing then was that this apparent modernization and discipline was completely superficial.

I won’t say it was completely fake. It was probably true for a couple of units but also due to the fact that the war was so short. There was so little effective violence after the first five days of fighting, the occupation happened very peacefully, there was no Georgian resistance, there were no bombs going off or anything [that] would freak Russians out and force them back to their usual methods. But as we’ve seen in Ukraine, the minute the adversary became a bit more serious, they reverted to the old playbook and the old ways of behaving.

RFE/RL: I’ll be very honest, I’m quite surprised that you would underline the good behavior of Russian soldiers. I asked you if there was one enduring image. I do have one such enduring image of that war and that’s Russian soldiers visibly drunk and carrying toilet seats ransacked from Gori.

Littell: Maybe it’s a question of time [and] place. I didn’t see any such behavior in Georgia on the part of the Russian soldiers. I did see it on the part of the Ossetian militias who were incredibly badly behaved and drunk and aggressive and murderous. To the extent of my knowledge — again, this could be wrong — most of the actual war crimes committed in the zone between Gori and Ossetia were committed by Ossetian militias.

One thing I do know, as a fact about the Russian Army, is that behavior and discipline [are] very much on the unit level and depend very much on the command. If there’s a good commander who maintains discipline, the unit can be much more professional than another unit where the commander doesn’t care and lets the soldiers do whatever they want. So you get these massive differences from unit to unit…in the Russian Army, which is why certain units later on get fingered and [called] out for particularly massive war crimes.

For instance, I’ll give you an example, a more contemporary example. When I covered the Ukraine war last May, over a year ago, I did a long feature piece and I traveled fairly extensively in all the areas that had been occupied by Russia around Kyiv, and then also in all the areas that had been occupied by Russia around Kharkiv after the Russians had pulled back.

It was quite different in the two areas. There was a lot less of these mass murders, war crimes, bodies lying around, civilians being killed, tortured, [and] disappeared around Kharkiv than around Kyiv. There were some, but the scale was like two or three, and not dozens and dozens…in the towns and villages. So, I don’t have an answer as to why this is. But I’m assuming this is a similar phenomenon that at the local command level commanders decided to do things differently and control their troops in a different manner.

RFE/RL: Do you think there were any lessons to be learned from the 2008 war for the West?

Littell: Yes, very clearly, they should have resisted Russian aggression much more strongly than they did. I think [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy’s role in appeasing the situation and basically giving the Russians everything they wanted was absolutely shameful. His decision to sell them warships immediately after the conflict was even more shameful, sending Russia the completely wrong signal that basically this would be tolerated. They could do anything they wanted in their backyard without anyone really caring that much about it. You know, there was this whole myth that [former Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev, he was going to be…

RFE/RL: The good guy, the liberal?

Littell: Exactly. More liberal and more open and a more democratic president than Putin. And obviously, the West completely misread the dynamics between the two and who was pulling the strings, who was actually controlling things. So yes, there were major mistakes.

From Bucharest on (at the NATO summit in 2008 where it was announced that Ukraine and Georgia would join the defense alliance without being offered a time frame or solid plan) the West has made nothing but mistakes in its dealings with Russia, leading to the current situation.

If they were going to open the door to Ukraine and Georgia, they should have just let them into NATO immediately. But, as we know, the Americans wanted to do it, [but] Germany and France didn’t. And that’s what led to the stalemate, which then led to the Georgian war, which further down the line led to the 2014 Ukraine events and the current full-scale invasion.

RFE/RL: If there’s one silver lining about bitter lessons, or mistakes, it’s that one can learn from them. Did the West learn anything from 2008?

Littell: No. I don’t think so. They didn’t even really learn from 2014. It’s only in 2022 that they woke up and went, “Oh my God, what’s happening?” All those years between 2008 and 2022, the British let Russian oligarchs run rampant in London, washing all their dirty money in British football clubs, in British real estate, while Putin was killing opponents on British territory. The Germans were feeding off the gas and oil siphon: cheap gas and oil from Russia to boost their economy without caring about the geopolitical risks. So, nobody learned anything at all. No one really seemed to care, seemed to understand Russia.

RFE/RL: Was it ignorance or an unwillingness to learn?

Littell: Well, on the part of [former German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, I don’t think she can plead ignorance. She understands the Russians perfectly, because it’s built into her genetic makeup practically, [who] these people are and what they’re capable of, because she grew up under their boots, so she knows them very well. But she sort of managed to convince herself somehow that through this whole normalization-through-commerce strategy, that by entangling them in commercial networks with the West, it would make any sort of aggression impossible. And obviously that was a complete miscalculation.

The French never understood the Russians. I spoke back in 2006 with a then senior French official who’s now a very important minister in the French government. I won’t tell you which one; it doesn’t matter. We were talking about Putin and my experiences in Chechnya, and I was trying to explain to him how dangerous Putin was for everybody’s security, not just for people inside his country. And he basically laughed me away and said, “No, no, I’ve met Putin three times. He’s very reasonable. He’s someone we can do business with, he’s predictable. You know, we’re not going to have any problems with Putin.”

Obviously, we spoke again last year, and he was like, “Yep, Jon, you were right, I’m afraid I have to recognize that.” But it took 16 years for that realization, you know.

So, there’s a level of blindness. In France, [there’s] also a peculiar situation because of the traditional Russophilia, which goes way, way back, reinforced by [former French President Charles] de Gaulle’s semi-nonalignment position during the Cold War. A large part of the French establishment is actually incredibly Russophile, which makes it very difficult for them to objectively assess the actual threats posed by Russia.

[French President Emmanuel] Macron finally came around; [it] took him a year after the start of the full-scale invasion [of Ukraine], but even he was completely caught in the old myths that “we can talk with them, that we can calm things down through dialogue.”

It’s a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the system itself, which is very similar to the current Georgian system…[and] has nothing to do with the objective interests of the state, the objective interests of the people of Russia. When Putin talks about Russia and what Russia needs and Russia’s interests, he’s talking about the interests of a clique of his very small circle of incredibly wealthy friends that have stolen most of the wealth in the country, just like your current government…not in the best interests of Georgia and its population, but in their own interests.

RFE/RL: You say it took a year for Macron to come to his senses, yet he still insists that Russia should not be humiliated. I want to hear your take on that. And what about the West? Is it OK for the West to be humiliated?

Littell: Clearly, a lot of their leaders seem to think it’s better for the West to be humiliated than for Russia to be humiliated. It’s stupid reasoning. The only ones who I think are fairly clearheaded right now are the Americans. They had hoped they could ignore Russia, leave Russia to Europe so that they could concentrate on China. That was the whole hope under [former U.S. President Barack] Obama, that [Russia] was a regional power and no longer a world power, and that they could basically ignore it.

In February 2022 [and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine], that fact was thrown in their faces that no, they could no longer ignore Russia, that they had to deal with the threat. I think they’re dealing with it incredibly effectively and, in a way, they’re leveraging their aid to Ukraine — both military and financial — to weaken Russia as much as possible in the way they’re leveraging sanctions. Their whole strategy is designed to pull the teeth from Russia to make it as little a threat as possible, while never ignoring the fact that they have nuclear weapons and that we don’t want to push them over the edge to the point where they might use the nuclear weapons.

Because of all the commercial connections, I think Europe is a lot more confused. There’s obviously strong divergences from one country to another; it makes it very hard to reach a consensus between the nations of the EU, plus [the United Kingdom], plus Norway [and] Switzerland. So, this whole line [from] Macron about, you know, we must not humiliate Russia, is something I’ve denounced in the past year quite openly in the French press. I think it’s a complete mistake. I think, on the contrary, Russia has to be defeated decisively once and for all on the battlefield, kicked out militarily from Ukraine. Hopefully, that would provoke the collapse of this insane fascist regime. Then Russia could start reconstructing itself [as] a slightly more normal country that can live with its neighbors in a normal way.

Really, the only hope for the future is a complete defeat. Obviously, yes, that will be humiliating for Russia. But as I also wrote, Russia is so good at humiliating itself, it doesn’t really need anybody from the outside to humiliate them in the most incompetent, the most incapable manner that one could possibly imagine.

In recent military history, [over] the past two centuries let’s say, have we seen such a botched invasion on a simple military level? [One] this badly conducted, this badly planned, this badly prepared. Americans have done horrible and criminal things in their wars in the past 20 years. But when they invade a country, they do it well. And they have a doctrine, and they apply it. The Russians aren’t even capable of properly invading anybody.

RFE/RL: So, unless there is this complete defeat on the battlefield for Russia, nothing will change in the country? No one rising up against Putin?

Littell: Nothing’s going to change politically in Russia until Russia is defeated in Ukraine. The system is far too strong. The [Yevgeny] Prigozhin (former head of the mercenary group Wagner) episode showed major weaknesses within the system. But still, the system survived the Prigozhin episode quite well. As humiliating as it might be for Putin to have let Prigozhin go safely and to let him continue his business, it still shows a capacity for adaptation in the system and a realism as to its internal functioning — which means it’s unstable, but it’s strong in its instability.

Nothing can come from inside of Russia. But [it could] if they are defeated on the battlefield, if there is a major military collapse, as has been the case throughout Russian history. [Tsar Nicholas I] didn’t survive the defeat in Crimea. [Tsar Nicholas II] barely survived defeat in Japan and did not survive for long. The Soviet Union did not survive defeat in Afghanistan. So, it’s a constant in Russian history that military defeat precipitates the fall of the leader of the regime. And I’m convinced it will be the same thing in this case.