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Interview: Edward Luttwak, A Military Adviser To Presidents, Explains How The Ukraine War Began And How It Might End

Military strategist Edward Luttwak (file photo)
Military strategist Edward Luttwak (file photo)

Edward Luttwak is among modern times' most sought-after military strategists, advising the Pentagon, presidents, and prime ministers around the world. He's also among their most controversial. Luttwak's analyses and conclusions are often described as being blunt, unequivocal, counterintuitive, and sometimes jarringly cynical.

A polyglot American born to Jewish parents in World War II Romania and raised in Italy and England, he is the author of seminal books like Strategy: The Logic Of War And Peace and The Grand Strategy Of The Soviet Union as well as more than a dozen others. But he is best known for his 1968 book Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook, which is required reading at some war colleges.

In an extended interview, RFE/RL Georgian Service fellow Vazha Tavberidze recently asked the 79-year-old Luttwak about the current war in Ukraine, from its origins in the minds of Kremlin planners to the "whole new world that was created in the space of 24 hours" by Ukrainians' unexpectedly staunch resistance and major powers' economic and diplomatic response to the invasion.

Through the lens of a self-described "grand strategist," he lays out the "false theory" that lured Vladimir Putin into large-scale war, German blame for Ukraine, the bad intelligence that "destroyed deterrence," and the cold calculus suggesting that not even Kyiv's allies desire "total victory" and therefore the only way out is "the plebiscite exit."

This is a transcript of that hour-plus interview, edited by RFE/RL's Andy Heil for length and clarity.

RFE/RL: From the "grand strategy" perspective, what led to the Ukraine war, and was it inevitable?

Edward Luttwak: Well, the war was an intellectual war, in the sense that the idea was generated within the Kremlin and the people connected to the Kremlin -- that this was the moment for Russia to continue on the path of imperial recovery. And it was supposed to be a continuous process: that is, that South Ossetia was regained without firing a shot, Abkhazia was regained without firing a shot, against the weak state of Georgia. (Editor's note: In 2008, Russia fought an intense, five-day war against pro-Tbilisi Georgian forces for control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.) And then Crimea was gained without firing a shot against a much, let's say, bigger country, Ukraine. (Editor's note: Ukrainian forces have been fighting a lower-intensity war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and mobilized support for the separatists.)

At that point, what was going on is that there was very careful poker-playing in the Kremlin. And superficially it would seem that the careful poker player suddenly goes to the roulette table and throws everything on a single number. But actually the Russian government believed -- and we know this for 100 percent certainty -- that this was going to be another bloodless operation, no blood, no shooting. And the scenario was that a few hundred people would be delivered by helicopters to the Antonov airfield, which is 20 kilometers from central Kyiv, they would clear the field, whereupon IL-76s [military transport planes] would bring in several thousand people, and then there would be fast-moving six-wheelers [and] eight-wheel vehicles coming from Belarus, they drive into Kyiv, [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy runs away, the government dissolves [and], left without orders, the Ukrainian armed forces do not fight, whereupon a carefully prepared parade of a huge number of armored vehicles and supply vehicles would then arrive in a long double column through the autostrada east of Kyiv and generate images for Ukrainians and the world about the irresistible [force] of the Russian Army: They're just too big, too fast, too mobile, and so on. And some [troops] would then pull out to go and conquer Lviv, Uzhhorod, and these places, and take Ukraine.

That was the scenario that the very modern-minded Russian generals sold to Putin, or Putin accepted or demanded. They all wanted it. And because Ukraine is not a foreign country, according to them, but part of Russia, the [Federal Security Service, or FSB] got the job of doing the intelligence. They were supposed to verify the intelligence that all this is feasible.

Moreover, Putin knew the CIA was giving exactly the same estimate to [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden. Hence Biden offered this rescue to Zelenskiy, this "lift," this Uber ride [that Zelenskiy publicly rejected]. (Editor's note: The Ukrainian Embassy in the United Kingdom leaked that, when the United States offered to airlift Zelenskiy out of Ukraine after the invasion began, he responded by saying that "The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.")

I was aware of these intelligence estimates -- both the FSB's and the CIA's -- and I thought they were completely wrong. Therefore I went to Twitter and I sent some tweets saying somebody is trying to invade Europe's biggest country with a very small army. And that they will fail.

And by February 25, less than 24 hours after the operation [began], I said the careful "poker player" has gone to the red table, thrown everything [in], he lost, end of Putin.

Russia President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russia President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

I was a little premature about the end of Putin; we don't know yet. But definitely it was clear. So this led to a fight here between me and the intelligence community, because we both report to the same office, actually. And I discovered in the course of that fight that the reason why all of this illusion was formed in the Kremlin, which was shared by the intelligence committee in Washington, was because of the prevalence of new ideas on both sides about war. They use different words, like fourth-generation warfare, hybrid warfare, high-tech warfare, postrevolutionary. All of it was based on the idea of nonkinetic warfare. Kinetic means "stupid idiots shooting each other," right. Achilles throwing a spear, that's kinetic. And both among the Russian war planners and American war planners, the highest compliment was "nonkinetic." "You know, kinetic is so old-fashioned, we have this AI," and everything else.

So basically Putin either wanted it or got -- or was persuaded, or both -- a false theory of war. Because all these generals, the Russians and the Americans, had ribbons on their uniforms, color ribbons from fighting Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and so on. And suddenly they came across patriotic Europeans with weapons. They were used to finding people without weapons or else people who were 10-to-one superiority, and they actually [thought that was war]. And that's how it happened.

Putin didn't go mad; Putin simply joined a consensus, or accepted a consensus on how easy this was going to be. Now, by February 25, it was clear: "This is it, they can't win." And from that moment onwards, the best move for the Russian side was simply to stop, withdraw, and treat it as an incident. If that had happened, then the sanction mechanism would not have developed and so on.

Incidentally, this is a case where deterrence was destroyed by bad intelligence. Because the intelligence went to the Germans [and] on that basis the German government said on February 23 that they would not stop Nord Stream 2 if there were an "incident" and they would not supply weapons to Ukraine nor allow the Estonians to supply weapons to Ukraine. So this is a case where intelligence destroyed deterrence. And it did it on both sides. And the Germans of course accepted this thing.

And the second [pivotal] moment in the war was when Putin decided not to withdraw and to realize that this was going to be a war, [and] the sanctions start, very important G7 sanctions. And the G7 (the Group of Seven leading industrialized economies) immediately showed that another theory was wrong -- that theory was the "diffusion of power" theory, on the rise of new powers, like Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and things like that, and, of course, the big one, China, enormous China. It turns out that the importance of China in the following events was about the same as the importance of San Marino. That is to say, nobody paid attention [to Beijing]. Now, people like [former European Commission President and Italian ex-Prime Minister] Romano Prodi and so on, European notability, started saying, "Well, China has to come in, China has to come in, there's no solution without China." Now, it turns out the Chinese have absolutely no leverage on the Russians, no role, no nothing. But something else did happen, which is that the G7 actions done by telephoning each other, without artillery or air force or navies, immediately stopped all kinds of international transactions, not just with the money but all kinds of other things. And that is the moment that the Chinese realized that if they misbehaved over Taiwan, they would not get any protein [food imports]. Because Russia, for all its problems, is self-sufficient in food and energy. The United States is self-sufficient in food and energy. China is a food-importing country, where there is no protein. So if the Chinese misbehave, there's no more protein arriving.

So this whole new world was created in the space of 24 hours by the fact that Ukraine behaved like patriotic Europeans with weapons. And as you know, there are these things called the First World War and the Second World War that last for years, and they're the result of the peculiar strength of patriotic Europeans with weapons. So now we have this European war.

But there is a path to a solution emerging. And that path is that the Russian military effort in Kherson Oblast is weakening, and Ukrainians may well be able to reconquer the Kherson Oblast. They won't be able to reconquer the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. And at that point, Putin might be tempted to say, "OK, I'm going to stop fighting if you're going to stop fighting, and I'll stay with this," and that kind of stuff.

The problem with that solution is that Zelenskiy is the democratically elected president of Ukraine and [as such] has no authority to give away two big regions of Ukraine. Donetsk and Luhansk, together, are the size of an average European country. So if Putin wants to act unilaterally, the sanctions will continue and remain on Russia, and Russia will be "darkened" as a result. Attempting this solution [enduring sanctions] would not work for the Russians. So the only way out of this moment will be for Zelenskiy, who cannot give away anything of Ukraine, to agree to a plebiscite -- an actual plebiscite [in Donetsk and Luhansk], not the Russian referendum done [quickly] and so on, but a real plebiscite with the 1919 rules...established after the Versailles Treaty. So that is the overall picture that I see.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on June 10.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on June 10.

RFE/RL: In this plebiscite scenario, unlikely as it is that Zelenskiy would agree to that, but let's suppose he does and according to this real plebiscite, Donetsk and Luhansk [vote to] stay with Ukraine, is Putin going to allow it?

Luttwak: In this situation, the [alternative] is to continue fighting. And that is an option that may be considered acceptable by both sides in different conditions. I'm not saying this will happen, or should happen. All I'm saying is that they are locked in a corridor and there's only one exit, and that exit is the plebiscite exit. So if they don't take it, it means they don't have an exit. And why do I say it's the only exit? It's because a plebiscite, after all, leaves the decision to the people living there, and the democratically elected president of Ukraine cannot actually refuse a democratic solution.

Let me specify that the 1919 rules would be needed. Rule No. 1: that the entire process is controlled by a huge number of neutral inspectors, not 12 people, but a huge number everywhere. And rule No. 2: that before there is any voting there is eligibility, and someone who is from Donetsk who is in New Zealand gets a vote if he left in the last 20 years, or rather since 2014. First you have validation criteria and everything else, so it is actually a democratic choice. And Zelenskiy cannot a priori say, "Oh, I won't accept a democratic solution." Donetsk and Luhansk are entitled to have a democratic solution.

From Putin's point of view, if he tries to keep Donetsk and Luhansk without a plebiscite, the sanctions remain and they [will] have caused a darkening of Russian lives and a restriction on Russian life. If he stops the war without an agreement and simply unilaterally -- the way it happened de facto in regard to [South] Ossetia and Abkhazia, with a unilateral end, the sanctions remain.

So the sanctions are pressing on Putin, whereas what's pressing on Zelenskiy is that the Russian Army is getting better every day. Because it's the usual Russian military history: They start with top-down imposed concepts, ideas, all of which are wrong, and bad generals, political generals, then the war develops, and then the generals get demoted, the colonels get promoted, and they fight better. And that's what's happening. Not much better, but better.

And Ukrainian casualties have been increasing. The Western aid, aside from the United States and Britain, is so very limited. In Italy, for example, the politics of Italy are "Yes, we want to help Ukraine, but now we're not sending tanks because tanks are offensive weapons." In other words, there is a combination of military illiteracy together with posturing, this kind of stuff. Therefore, the aid to Ukraine is limited, and they are getting useful stuff from very few countries. From Poland they got useful tanks, from the Americans, of course, the British -- the rest, very little, symbolic shipments. They have a weapons problem and they have a casualty problem, so they have a reason to want to exit.

RFE/RL: On Putin settling with whatever result a plebiscite might come with...

Luttwak: There has to be a cease-fire.

RFE/RL: If there is a cease-fire where Putin is left with nothing, can he survive that?

Luttwak: There is a cease-fire where he is left with telling the Russian people that he has won for Donetsk and Luhansk the right to choose: "They were prisoners of Ukraine but because of his war, even though expensive, they have the right to choose, and now it's up to them to choose." Please remember that Putin himself is the elected president of the Russian Federation. You can question the election, but the fact is that there was an election, and therefore officially and formally, Putin cannot reject the electoral mechanism of choice. In fact, he has officially not annexed Donetsk and Luhansk, but he established them as "independent republics," no less.

RFE/RL: Many experts don't see Russians getting better and adapting militarily. Are the Russian gains in the south and east of Ukraine irreversible? Can Ukraine hope to retake them?

Luttwak: For Ukraine, the cost of regaining [territory] is the issue. It depends on if they're willing to accept the cost, but the cost is very high to regain these territories.

The Russian improvement is an improvement [from] changing the command structure. Russia has not mobilized for war, as you know, therefore, there is no general conscription. The people who are fighting are contract soldiers, and contract soldiers are people who need the job. And that's why even though the total populations of [the Siberian region of] Buryatia, and places like that, are very small, they [figure] very large in the casualty figures. Ossetians, Buryatians, and also people from Daghestan, a lot of Avars are getting killed in this war. These are all small populations. The Russians are 150 million people, maybe 110 million are of Russian ethnicity, but the casualties are disproportionately from the small populations.

Putin has not proclaimed mobilization, therefore they are still relying on contract soldiers. And the effect of casualties among contract soldiers is much less [significant] politically and socially. These are "expendable people," from a political perspective.

Ukrainians don't have expendable people. In the case of Ukraine, the casualties are felt through the social, cultural, political system, and therefore they are different in terms of the impact. As we speak, there's a Ukrainian effort to advance into Kherson, and if Putin's strategy is the one I imputed to him -- which is to give everything up [but] keep Donetsk and Luhansk -- then the Russian forces will not be strongly resisting the retaking of Kherson and the Ukrainians can get Kherson. But if they try and get Donetsk and Luhansk, they will meet with the mass of the Russian forces and considerable defensive capacity, and a lot of artillery.

RFE/RL: What about farther south, with Mariupol and this vaunted land bridge to Crimea and so on?

Luttwak: Mariupol is in Kherson Oblast (Editor's note: It's actually in Donetsk Oblast, about 30 kilometers from Kherson Oblast to the west), so Mariupol will be part of the territory that Putin will not keep. This talk about the land bridge and so on, this was always highly theoretical talk. I mean, it wasn't really important.

RFE/RL: You are much sought-after for your counsel across the world. What advice would you give Kyiv and President Zelenskiy now?

Luttwak: My advice to Zelenskiy today would be to put all the effort into recovering Kherson Oblast, to be defensive vis-a-vis Donetsk and Luhansk, and then to trust in the decline of the Russian image among Russians. The Russian elite is demoralized by this war. This will have a big impact on the plebiscite, and I think he [Zelenskiy] has a good chance to win the plebiscite, and then he ends the war with a democratic plebiscite and the sanctions are lifted on Russia, which will have a huge economic benefit for Ukraine as well. In my view, that is the [likely] scenario. And I think Zelenskiy, the democratically elected leader, he should accept the democratic solution for the war.

RFE/RL: What's your take on [former U.S. Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger's advice to Ukraine at the Davos forum, where he basically suggested Ukraine should cede land to get a cease-fire?

Luttwak: There were two great voices that spoke from Davos: George Soros, who told Ukrainians to continue until final victory, which would be a great idea if somebody disinvented nuclear weapons. Soros said "continue till victory." And Kissinger said, "Surrender and give up Donetsk and Luhansk unilaterally." Both of these [pieces of] advice are useless. I'm not saying that what they're saying is wrong, I'm simply saying that the Ukrainian government will not accept giving up the territories for the very simple reason that the president of Ukraine does not have the authority to give away territory -- they would have to have a whole new political system to do that.

Hungarian-born U.S. investor and philanthropist George Soros (file photo)
Hungarian-born U.S. investor and philanthropist George Soros (file photo)

Whereas George Soros's advice is impossible, because the allies will not accept it. The allies will not want a strategy where Ukraine fights till total victory, even if the Ukrainians were able to fight till total victory. The allies don't want an Ukrainian total victory...[because even though] all of the events that have occurred since February 24, which have changed so many things in the world, have not changed one thing: The Russian Federation is a great power and it can absorb 20 defeats like Ukraine and still be a great power.

Firstly, even after exiles and so on, there are still 110 million Russians or something like that, which is much more Russians than there are Germans or French and so on. Secondly, they control the territory that has access to the Middle East, to the Far East; it is a vast area and it is self-sufficient. In reality, Russians could follow a full policy of autarky. There's only one thing they need from the outside world and that is Borjomi water [from springs in central Georgia]. Russia is a great power. That's why total victory is the wrong strategy. Do not pursue total victory against a power like Russia.

RFE/RL: With that in mind, what's your take on the Western military support, as we see wildly different takes from different countries when it comes to providing Ukraine with weaponry.

Luttwak: The Europeans are divided into two groups: There are the Europeans who are sure that if their country is attacked, their army will not fight or will be defeated, the government will not help them, and they'll be abandoned. In other words, they have a Defense Ministry, they have an army, they have uniforms, medals, but they don't actually believe any of that is true. So in these countries, they are the ones that have promised weapons to Ukraine [but] have sent much less, they don't send anything useful, they're not there, they want to surrender within two minutes, they're all enthusiastic for the Pope and Kissinger and all the rest of them.... It's clear that the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Italians -- all these people, they don't have any interest [or] commitment to this war, they complain about the inconvenience, the loss of business, the fact that the rich Russians are not going to Marbella, and the restaurant owners in Marbella say, "without the Russians, we have to close because they're the only idiots to pay $2,000 for a bottle of wine," things like that.

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and current incumbent Olaf Scholz (file photo)
Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and current incumbent Olaf Scholz (file photo)

And then what you have is the Germans, who have caused this war because of their policy. If [ex-]Chancellor [Angela] Merkel and Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz have caused this war, they caused it by refusing to provide a serious resistance to Russian political infiltration, pressure, and so on. And being at the center of Europe, they're the largest of the Western European nations. The Germans are talented in everything: music, philosophy, business, making cars, whatever; they are not talented in strategy. They didn't lose the First World War, the Second World War, by mistake. Bad strategy -- and there has been terrible strategy since the rise of Putin, the German strategy has been absolutely terrible.

And then you have the serious people who expect their army to win the war. The British, of course, the Finns, the Norwegians, the Swedes, the Danes, who in many ways always had Europe's best army -- they happen to be a small country, but they have 100 percent belief. So the Northern Europeans, the British, the Americans, the loyal Canadians, they are serious.

And then the Germans and the southerners are not, you have, of course, France. And the French game is, "We are a long way from Ukraine. Whatever happens makes France stronger." Which is true, because the French have separated from this threat geographically and therefore can choose -- and what they've been doing is that they've been providing some help, nothing very impressive. They still remember fondly how they were building ships for the Russian Navy and so on.

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But France is similar to Germany and Italy and these other big NATO countries [in that] they still have vast deposits...of weapons that they could easily put on wagons and send to Ukraine and they don't. Actually, the Germans used to have 12 army divisions, and they replaced those tanks successfully. An army division has roughly 200 tanks, so you can imagine that they have 2,000 tanks sitting around. Italians have around 1,500 tanks sitting around that they could send to Ukraine, but they don't. And the French don't have that, they don't have tanks that they can put on wagons because of the decline of their military structure.

RFE/RL: When you were dividing these European countries in two camps, there was a particular omission -- that of Poland.

Luttwak: In the case of Poland, I was there on November 4 of 2021. That's a long time ago, because it was before the war, however, it's only eight months ago. When I arrived, I met with a group of people who were influential, and I said to them, according to Wikipedia, the Polish ground-force army consists of 42,000 people. And I said that this number is the right number if Poland is somewhere between Fiji and Tonga, but if Poland is near Russia, this number is a ridiculous number. The Finns are 5.5 million people and...the last time they assembled [their troops] it was 530,000; so 500,000 for 5 million people. Poland with 30 plus-million people has 42,000 soldiers. I said, "Which world are you living in?'' I only stayed a couple days, I left my message; nobody paid attention.

Then just before the war, they published a defense plan in which there was going to be a voluntary service for a 100,000-man army. So the Poles have continued in their tradition of being incapable of understanding the rules of strategy. On the other hand, they've been extremely generous [on a public and personal level] with the Ukrainians. But they have not started military service, even now.

So I think they have this kind of incredible illusion, that NATO membership is a kind of 100 percent protection. When I was in Poland talking about the lack of soldiers in Poland, they kept telling me that there are 4,000 Americans stationed in Poland after the 2016 request. So I said to them, "Tell me, if the Russian full-scale invasion happens, which we have not seen in Ukraine by the way, because Russia is not mobilized, then what do you think will happen to the 4,000 Americans? Do you think they will be reinforced or evacuated?" It's a kind of cultural problem. I was so frustrated in Warsaw [in November] that I asked people, "Tell me, what happened on September 3, 1939? What actually happened here, where we're talking?" And what happened is two things: first, that Warsaw was bombed by the Luftwaffe; and second, that the BBC did not actually run a news bulletin because the Wimbledon tennis tournament was approaching its climax.

I told Poles: "Poland has 36 million people. Be serious, and defend yourselves." Nobody accepted that the rational thing for Poland is to get young fellows, teach them, and give them a rifle and a bazooka. That was "primitive." Their money went to build a fleet in the Baltic and buying a lot of expensive helicopters. And I said, "Why do you want to buy helicopters?" And they said because when we go on multinational missions like Afghanistan, we don't want our Polish soldiers to be ashamed of their old helicopters. In other words, we have a real cultural problem there, and it's not new. These are historically repetitive patterns. People always think they are going to escape from history, but history is waiting there to grab you back.

RFE/RL: If Poland's example is anything to go by, if 42,000 troops for a neighbor of Russia is ridiculous, what does that say about countries like Moldova and Georgia?

Luttwak: Moldova is a country which has numerous problems, but those problems aside, I never believed that Moldova was in danger at all. I never believed at any point in the Moldova scenario [envisaging Russian troops overrunning Moldova]. I didn't believe in the Transdniester scenario [envisaging a Russian intention to control territory from southeastern Ukraine to Transdniester]. The [Russian] 14th Army in Transdniester has approximately 1,500 soldiers, with no combat experience, and many of them are quite old. The population of Transdniester itself is very old because of the huge amount of emigration due to economic decline. Therefore the "Transdniester attacks Moldova" scenario or "Russians flying to Transdniester," this was all fantasy. Moldova was never threatened, in my view, and is not threatened now.

The only question in Moldova is a political question, namely, at what point will the social and economic development in Romania reach the point where Moldovans vote [on whether] a government will ask to join Romania. That's the only question. Romania is approaching that point. It's not just a member of the European Union, but there is a real improvement in everyday life in Romania, in the functioning of the economy, governance, and everything.

RFE/RL: If Poland having 42,000 troops considering the geographical proximity with Russia is ridiculous, as you claim, then what shall we say about Moldova and Georgia, which have far fewer?

Luttwak: Moldova is in a secure position. Georgia is not. Because Georgia is bordering Russia, Russia is a great power, and because of Georgia's location across the Black Sea, from the military point of view, it is not a plausible scenario whereby Georgia is secure by [NATO] alliance membership. That is to say, Georgia's peripheral location makes it sort of impossible to have serious alliance support for Georgia. And that is reality.

RFE/RL: Even with Turkey being an alliance member?

Luttwak: Yes. If Turkey were a serious NATO ally, something like Norway, then Georgia would have no problems at all. The problem is that Turkey is not a NATO member except nominally. Even before [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. Turkey is only a member of NATO when NATO can help Turkey; it's never a member of NATO when Turkey has to help NATO.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)

In the next election, if Erdogan loses power [and Europeanists win], Turkey could become a real NATO ally -- by having the Europeanists win. At that point, Georgia is in the proximity of a proper NATO ally, and things change a lot. So the Georgian situation is not irremediable or eternal or universal, it is a simple fact that Turkey is not a real NATO ally. If they were, they wouldn't have any of these issues.

RFE/RL: So, if Georgians were to follow your advice, they should play the waiting game?

Luttwak: Absolutely. Play the waiting game, improve the country, and wait for the geopolitical situation to change. The fact is that there are approximately 27 states within driving range of Georgia whose political structure, nature, political culture have disappeared. These are extinct states, states that don't exist anymore, powers that don't exist anymore. Georgians, like Armenians, survived historically because they are textual peoples -- that is to say, they are people who own texts, they have writings. Nations that depend on territory, or gold mines or whatever it is -- they can disappear. Nations created by an enterprising, talented general -- they can disappear. Textual nations persist. The more textual, the more they persist.

RFE/RL: Let's go back to Russia. Considering that you wrote a "handbook" on coups d'etat, do you think such a thing is possible in Russia, with Putin in power?

Luttwak: Inside the Kremlin, there are different people walking around, [and] some of them have guns. For example, the SVR [Foreign Intelligence Service] people. SVR head [Sergei] Naryshkin was against the war publicly. He publicly said "negotiate." He has not been fired, shot, or exiled, or sent to Omsk or something.... In theory, [the coup] happens; but, in practice, historically what happens is that there is a group of people in power whose leader keeps making mistakes and who will then sink them all. So he will die, but they will lose their houses, and maybe their eyes and so on. And they're supposed to toss him into the water to rescue the ship; they never do. The Nazi princes died with Hitler. Saddam's men, many of whom became rich because of Saddam, they all died with Saddam Hussein. Somehow the scenario of rational choice doesn't seem to work.

That is to say, I can't think of a situation where a dictator ruins the state and the people around him get rid of him. It just doesn't happen, because the web of complicity, the net of complicity, is too strong. Somebody could retire Putin and save Russia, you know.

RFE/RL: Retire as in "quote-unquote"?

Luttwak: No, not necessarily. Even immediately after [Soviet leader Josef] Stalin died, who after all was not a Russian of "good Russian blood" but Ossetian or whatever he was. Evil Stalin dies, [but] from them they always didn't kill them. I think [Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav] Molotov went to head a hydroelectric project. So Putin could go back to St. Petersburg and restart his law studies. Why not? I like Putin, actually; I don't dislike him at all. I met him when he was a young fellow. He was working for the municipality in Leningrad for [mentor and former Mayor Anatoly] Sobchak. He maintained his 100 percent loyalty to Sobchak, even after the Sobchak trial and the scandal. He remains loyal to Ksenia, Sobchak's daughter, even though she is an opposition person. One of Putin's virtues is that he never forgets his friends. For years, I was invited to his presidential conferences -- he would send me business class tickets to go to the conference. He is a wonderful fellow in many ways, and I am very sorry that he tripped up over Ukraine. But, if he loses power, he should be allowed to have a decent life. Why not?

RFE/RL: You think?

Luttwak: Yeah, I don't think he's an evil person, he's not somebody like Hitler, that one can smash his head in with a hammer and feel a great sense of satisfaction.

RFE/RL: You say that you feel sorry he "tripped up over Ukraine." Does that involve Crimea as well, Georgia in 2008, or, for example, Chechnya?

Luttwak: In Crimea there is no possibility of a plebiscite, or no use for a plebiscite, because as you know there is a very small Ukrainian population and they're very unlikely to vote. He [Putin] will not accept a plebiscite over Crimea because of the [Kremlin] justification [for its invasion and annexation in 2014] that Crimea was historically Russian.

RFE/RL: So 2008, 2014, the war in Chechnya. Are those not enough to dislike Putin?

Luttwak: Well, there are other things that Putin has done. There has been some degree of misrepresentation. For example, his famous statement about the tragedy of the fall of the Soviet Union was actually made in response to the fact that people were dying all over Russia because the pension system had collapsed -- because the pension system was relying on the Soviet economic structure of kombinats [Soviet-era industrial groups] and factories. There were these one-factory towns, there were komuna [communes], there were canteens and shops. Suddenly it was collapsing and people were dying all around Russia from malnutrition. That's really what triggered it. So he was, for example, very concerned about old-age pensioners. He really was. Then there was a collapse into oligarchy, greed, buying yachts, all that stuff, yeah, but he's not Hitler.

RFE/RL: If that's the criterion for liking Putin: He's not Hitler and therefore he can be liked? And last question: Is Putin taking a page from the Roman emperors' textbook?

Luttwak: No.

RFE/RL: Because we have this "divide and rule" and "bread and [circuses]"...

Luttwak: No. "Divide and rule" and things like that are fundamental human dynamics that you can find among schoolgirls. Everywhere. It's very fundamental. I think Putin's formation and deformation, intellectual rise and intellectual fall, and all that reflect the nature of a person who is a completely pragmatic individual, who has a strong emotional attachment to people who were friendly to him when he was much poorer and much less powerful. He is very loyal to his friends. He has a very elemental nature. A lot of his ideas about international politics and so on have been formed through experiences that, as you know, were misleading.

Because, for example, he was innocently naive about all these war games. They were doing war games in the Kremlin, and he believed all this stuff -- all these ideal scenarios. Helicopters and airplanes. These table games. It's not real war. I was an infantryman and fought with a rifle and a bazooka. So I know what real war is like, and what they were planning in the Kremlin was not real war. Putin is not a force of nature; he doesn't create reality. He lives within reality and maneuvers within that reality. He's not Napoleon.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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