The revelations of Alexander Sytnik, who recently left his position as a senior fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, a government-funded think tank, provides a rare glimpse into the inner mechanisms of policymaking in Russia. In his personal account of the run-up to the war in Ukraine, Sytnik details the Russian government’s failure to take advice from the expert community. “Ideally, an analyst should say and write what he thinks,” Sytnik writes. “If he starts saying and writing things that people want to hear and uses his analytical skills to comply with the views of the ‘elites,’ to ‘blend into the trend,’ then he is not an expert anymore” (Nomos.by, January 3).
According to Sytnik, Leonid Reshetnikov, the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, and Tamara Guzenkova, the head of the Institute’s department responsible for Ukraine, were vehemently opposed not only to Ukraine, but to the very notion of a distinct Ukrainian identity as such. The two, along with their subordinates, writes Sytnik, “could not say anything, but ‘there is no Ukraine, only Little Russia [Malorossiya]’; ‘Ukrainian statehood is a bluff and it is a failed state’; ‘it is a result of the criminal destruction of the Russian Empire by the Bolsheviks’; ‘the Ukrainian language was artificially created by the Austrians and the Poles to break up Russian unity’; ‘the consolidation of the post-Soviet space on the foundation of territorial and spiritual rebirth…’ ” According to Sytnik, the Russian Institute for Strategic Research illegally funded pro-Russian analysts in Ukraine though third parties (Nomos.by, January 3).
Experts complaining about politicians not listening to them is quite common, and the offended expert’s testimony, as is the case with Sytnik, has certain inherent limitations. Yet, the detailed account of his publicly available testimony is still quite revealing. According to the expert, who specialized in the Baltic States during his time in the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, he was fired after his analytical report on Belarus was delivered in September 2014. Sytnik’s main premise was that Belarus would participate in the Moscow-crafted Eurasian Union only as long as Belarus’ sovereignty remained intact. In his words, he was subsequently told that his point of view contradicted that of the Russian presidential administration and, therefore, the view of the Institute, and he had to go (Nomos.by, December 12, 2014).
The Russian Institute for Strategic Research, according to Sytnik, was an integral part of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki, or SVR) until the spring of 2009, when control over the institution was transferred to the Russian presidential administration. The Institute originally collected and analyzed open source information related to Russia’s foreign policy and international relations. SVR Lieutenant General Leonid Reshetnikov reportedly became an ardent Orthodox Christian and an admirer of imperial Russia at the time when he was responsible inside the spy agency for the Balkans. This fondness for religion and the glorious past of imperial Russia informed many of his catastrophic decisions, according to Sytnik (Nomos.by, January 3).
Reshetnikov’s institute consistently badly advised the Russian presidential administration by telling it that the post-Soviet states were not full-fledged legal entities under international law and that the Russians were the only state-founding people (gosudarstvoobrazuyushchy narod) in the entire post-Soviet space; therefore, the Russian Empire should be restored. It also told the Kremlin that the West was weak, cowardly and greedy and would accede to the annexation of Crimea along with the war in eastern Ukraine, and that the Russian security services would be able to create strong pro-Russian movements in Ukraine and Belarus to influence the policy in these state in a direction favorable for Russia. The Institute propagated the views that oil and gas, along with nuclear capabilities and a special Russian Orthodox spirituality would allow Russia to reserve a special place for itself as a global center of power and counterbalance the United States. When the war in Ukraine started, the Russian Institute for Strategic Research directly participated in organizing insurgency movements in Ukraine, advocating for the creation of Novorossiya (New Russia) and for the seizure of regions of Ukraine as far to the west as Odesa, as well as Transnistria in Moldova, which they said should be incorporated into Russia along with Crimea. In the run-up to the hostilities in Ukraine, possible resistance by the Ukrainians, Western sanctions and other obstacles were not even considered, according to Sytnik. The expert admits it is hard to know whether the analysis by his former institution informed the Kremlin’s approach to Ukraine or just made it more consistent and firm. However, Sytnik notes that Russia’s moves in Ukraine practically fully coincided with the recommendations made by the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (Nomos.by, January 3).
The Russian analyst’s scathing remarks about the country’s leadership and about the community of government experts confirm that the concept of Russian supremacy has a strong hold on the Russian leadership. These supremacist views are not limited to the post-Soviet space, where “only ethnic Russians are capable of creating statehood.” The West is also seen as decadent and somewhat spiritually inferior to the Russians. The spread of such views in Russia, especially among the country’s leaders, precludes easy and quick solutions to the Ukrainian crisis, but rather suggests a relatively lengthy period of tensions between Russia and the West, even if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin were, for some reason, to step down.