Russia Still Seeks Regime Change to Turn Ukraine into 'Rump State'

The Russian army's initial attempts to take Kyiv by force have failed. However, the Kremlin has not revised its goal of regime change in Ukraine.

"The aim is the liquidation of Ukraine as a puppet of the Anglo-Saxon block," says Pyotor Akopov, a columnist for the Russian state news outlet RIA-Novosti, his comments matching those of others close to power in the Kremlin.

"Ukraine in its current form will not come out of this conflict," Akopov told Newsweek. "It will be a different country with a different leadership completely in the Russian sphere of influence."

Akopov came to the attention of Western observers on February 26, when he published an op-ed titled "Russia's Invasion and the Arrival of a New World." The article was posted to RIA-Novosti's website at exactly 8:00 a.m. on February 26, two days after the start of the Russian invasion.

"Ukraine has returned to Russia," the article stated optimistically. "This does not mean that its statehood will be liquidated, but that it will be reorganized, re-established and returned to its natural state of part of the Russian world."

The RIA-Novisti website removed Akopov's article the day after its publication. Most of the speculation as to why it did so has centered on the discrepancy between the columnist's characterization of "Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine acting as a single geopolitical entity" and the real-world fact of Ukrainian soldiers and citizens banding together to repel the Russian invasion.

Putin and Lavrov 2021
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) looks on, next to Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), as they wait for the US-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

However, even as Russian troops redeploy from the areas around Kyiv in Ukraine's north in order to focus their attack on the southern Black Sea coast and eastern Donbas region, Akopov maintains that Russia's political goals in Ukraine will be met.

"One possibility for the operation was a quick capitulation, but another was a longer conflict," Akopov explains. "The quick capitulation didn't happen, and so now the troops that were around Kyiv will redeploy in order to take control of the area from Kherson to Donetsk."

He went on to describe the transformation of Ukraine into what is known as a "rump state," a landlocked remnant of the free and viable country it has been, cut off from the West, from vital sea trade through the Black Sea, a client state of the Kremlin — just like its neighbor to the north.

"After that, the Ukrainian army will see the uselessness of fighting, and Russia will expand towards Mykolaiv and Odesa," Akopov said. "What remains of Ukraine will then come under such economic and military pressure that it will have to reorient away from the West and back towards Russia."

"The resulting Ukrainian state will be similar to Belarus in its geopolitical orientation and domestic administration," he added. "This is a multi-step process."

Akopov is not a lone voice. Despite the military facts on the ground, his rhetoric matches that of other figures close to the Kremlin, and of the Russian leadership itself.

Since the start of Putin's invasion on February 24, one of Russia's officially stated aims has been the "denazification" of Ukraine. The accusation that the Kyiv government is a neo-fascist entity has been repeated in Moscow ever since Ukraine's Euromaidan revolution of 2014.

Moscow's characterization of its southern neighbor has not changed despite the fact that, in 2019, 73% of Ukrainian voters cast their ballot for current president Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian of Jewish heritage.

Nevertheless, on the morning of February 24, only a few hours after Russian forces began attacking Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that "we will strive towards the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine."

Throughout the conflict, Russian officials and Kremlin-connected insiders have used similar rhetoric.

"Our president said that we should carry out denazification and demilitarization," state Duma deputy Pyotor Tolstoy said on March 17 in an interview with the radio station Komsomolskaya Pravda. "In order for these two tasks to be achieved, it is necessary to completely take control of the territory of Ukraine."

In an interview published on March 28 in the newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that "both the demilitarization and the denazification of Ukraine are necessary components of any diplomatic agreement that we might reach."

On April 5, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his personal Telegram channel: "It should come as no surprise that, having written the names of of Judas and Nazi henchmen into its history textbooks and mentally transformed itself into the Third Reich, Ukraine will suffer the same fate that they did."

On April 8, Russian Foreign Ministry official spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said of some Ukrainians' claims that borscht is a Ukrainian dish: "This is what we are talking about when we speak of xenophobia, Nazism, and extremism in all its forms."

On April 12, in another interview published in Rossiskaya Gazeta, Kremlin insider Sergey Karaganov said: "We have not yet solved the main problem, which is the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, and the liberation of Donbas. It will have to be solved by military means, as negotiations at this stage will not lead to much."

And also on April 12, the Russian president himself reaffirmed his goals in no uncertain terms.

"The military operation will continue until its total completion," Vladimir Putin told a press conference, "with the resolution of the aims which were set forth at the beginning of this operation."

Despite its strategic military reorientation towards Ukraine's south and east, the Kremlin has not modified its initial political goal of regime change in Kyiv.

As Akapov warns, "This process can take several years."

Correction 4/15/22, 12:20 p.m.ET: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Akopov's article had been removed "within minutes" of publication. We regret the error.

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