Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a grave miscalculation by invading Ukraine, triggering a conflict that could ultimately spill over its borders, possibly igniting a larger conflagration, a former presidential adviser and Kremlin spin doctor has said.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Gleb Pavlovsky, speaking through Zoom from an unknown location, said Putin's decision to invade Ukraine on February 24 made "no political sense."
"This is all Putin's own personal decision. Nobody other than Putin would have made it, not even Ramzan Kadyrov, had he had a say in it," Pavlovsky said, referring to the authoritarian ruler of Russia's Chechnya region. "Nobody, including myself, realized just how maniacally obsessed he must have been with Ukraine. We underestimated the extent of decay of the Russian government."
A dissident during the Soviet era, Pavlovsky served a sentence of internal exile before the fall of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of communism, Pavlovsky became a "political technologist," serving as a consultant to the Kremlin from 1996 to 2011, after which he became a critic of Putin's presidency.
His comments come with Russian forces largely bogged down or in retreat in Ukraine, making small gains or holding positions in the south, mostly along the Black Sea coast. More than 4 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee the country amid the unprovoked Russian assault.
During their invasion, Russian forces have been accused by Human Rights Watch and many others of committing war crimes and atrocities in occupied areas of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions.
In his interview with RFE/RL, Pavlovsky, 71, said that Putin had "stepped into a trap in Ukraine."
"Ukraine was supposed to be a lever for pressuring the West into discussion over security issues," Pavlovsky said, referring to Kremlin demands that Putin first aired in December. "It's a game of strategy. But I was flabbergasted to see him throw away all negotiating opportunities over the genuine security of Russia and instead opt for this strange pogrom that he calls a 'special military operation.'"
With Russia's military having largely retreated from areas north of Kyiv and stating it will now focus on areas of southeastern Ukraine already held by Russia-backed separatists, Pavlovsky said Putin will find it difficult to declare "victory."
"Signing a cease-fire immediately would be the smartest thing Russia could do right now. It could get a neutrality status out of Ukraine, but that would amount to next to nothing. As for 'demilitarization,' which has been turned into a propaganda slogan, the extent of damage to Ukraine's military infrastructure is large enough to claim that 'demilitarization' has been achieved.
"Russia will try to keep the territories it has seized so far, especially the ones bordering the Sea of Azov, but this will depend on the willingness of Ukrainians to negotiate and stop the fighting," Pavlovsky said.
Like other Kremlin watchers, Pavlovsky believes Putin is hoping for an end to hostilities by May 9, when he could claim "victory" as Russia marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Celebrations normally includes a huge military parade on Moscow's Red Square complete with goose-stepping soldiers, tanks, and other military hardware.
"If a cease-fire is reached before May 9, so Russia can celebrate and 'sell' this as a victory, then that's a good outcome. If not, we won't have peace, the negotiations will drag on, and Russia will encounter even greater problems with sanctions," predicts Pavlovsky, cautioning that sanctions pose an even more serious long-term threat to the well-being of Russia.
The longer the conflict drags on, the likelier Moscow could escalate in Ukraine, Pavlovsky predicts, with the possibly of a spillover beyond the borders of Ukraine becoming greater.
"And if Russia doesn't choose peace and decides to continue the war, then it might do things in Ukraine that will see this conflict escalate to an unforeseen level. And this next level will take place beyond Ukraine's borders. This might spill into conventional warfare between Russia and the West, with NATO. How exactly this would look is hard to say, but I no longer think this to be unthinkable and impossible," Pavlovsky said.
If Russia's aggression in Ukraine drags on -- including mounting casualties and hardware losses -- and global sanctions begin to bite even harder, Pavlovsky believes it is unlikely Russians will turn on Putin but will rather rally around the flag.
"I don't think the people realize the impact of sanctions yet. They will start feeling it come summer. And as soon as they realize that the sanctions are designed to destroy both the Russian economy and the Russian Federation, everyone will unite to resist.
"Will they blame Putin or themselves for it? Was any Russian seeing German tanks rolling in in 1941 blaming [Josef] Stalin and [Vyacheslav] Molotov?" said Pavlovsky, referring to the former Soviet dictator and Soviet foreign minister, who first signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany that included secret protocols on divvying up Central and Eastern Europe into respective "spheres of influence," before Hitler scrapped it and invaded the Soviet Union.
The chance that Russia's elite -- the so-called oligarchs -- could turn on Putin is also something Pavlovsky is skeptical will happen.
"That so-called theory assumes that the oligarchs rule Russia. Oligarchs have never ruled Russia, even during the times of weak [Boris] Yeltsin," Pavlovsky explained, referring to Russia's first postcommunist president.
Pavlovsky also dismissed the recent exit of the well-known post-Soviet reformer Anatoly Chubais, who left his post as Putin's envoy for stable development.
"There is a false and even strange assumption that Putin's inner circle will start distancing itself from him. This won't happen. And Chubais himself was not a member of this inner circle anyway. He won't be missed because he is no longer relevant, hasn't been for years. He is a political relic of a long bygone era. Had he been of any value to the Kremlin, he would not have been allowed to 'escape,'" Pavlovsky said.
Unconfirmed reports have said that Chubais had left Russia and was believed to be in Turkey.
That doesn't mean Putin couldn't face threats to his power, not least from his inner circle, Pavlovsky added.
"They aren't idealists. They have their own designs on that throne. They are all waiting for the transition moment. And it's actually making Putin quite nervous, being surrounded by people who crave his throne. Especially considering that the majority of day-to-day running of the country is done by them and not by him," Pavlovsky said.
"If anyone thinks Putin is sitting and running the country's economy, or public life, then that's just laughable. Putin actually isn't much of a hardworking type," he added.
Looking back at his time working with Putin, Pavlovsky said he now has some regrets.
"What I regret is that I switched off my brain as an analyst during that time and, in a way, donated my brain to ‘Kremlin and Putin franchising,'" he explained. "Now I realize that I should have had a wider perspective of things, that I should have recognized the features of the system that we were building.
"Putin is a child of this system. Putin will be gone, one way or another, but the system will stay."