The chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, retired General-Colonel Leonid Ivashov, published an appeal on his organization’s website on Jan. 31 to “the President and Citizens of the Russian Federation.” The sharply worded missive, issued on behalf of the organization, ends with the words: “We, Russia’s officers, demand that the President of the Russian Federation reject the criminal policy of provoking a war in which Russia would be alone against the united forces of the West… and retire.”
Ivashov, 78, was a leading military hardliner in the 1990s. He was one of the instigators of the famous standoff at Pristina Airport in 1999, when Russian troops sought to block the entry of NATO peacekeepers into Kosovo. In 2001, newly appointed Russian President Vladimir Putin, consolidating his power, retired this top general at the early age of 57.
Ivashov has stayed politically active as an extreme, anti-democratic nationalist leader. In 2003, he founded his All-Russian Officers’ Assembly with a limited number of like-minded extremists. Their ideology is a mixture of Soviet nostalgia, religious orthodoxy, and patriotic conservatism with support from some communist leaders. From the outset, they demanded the ouster of Putin as corrupt and incompetent. They have also acted as a trade union for Russian officers. For example, in 2018, they urged the Russian government to acknowledge it sent private military contractors to Syria, so that the fighters and their families could receive financial and medical benefits, as do members of the Russian military. Assembly leaders have repeatedly condemned Putin and demanded his resignation.
This new appeal is important for two reasons.
First, at a time when any serious opposition web posting is being taken down within 24 hours by the Russian censor Roskomnadzor, this appeal has been up and freely accessible in Russian, including outside the country, for at least nine days. Moreover, it has been reposted on other websites, notably the liberal Ekho Moskvy, which also published a 36-minute video interview with Ivashov on Feb. 8, in which he calmly and lucidly explained his position. It has been viewed almost 1 million times. This suggests Ivashov’s appeal is for real and that he enjoys such substantial political support that Roskomnadzor may feel it can’t take it down.
Second, Ivashov and his society are known as the most hardline Russian military figures, considered to have good relations with the Russian military intelligence agency, known by its Russian acronym GRU, which the U.S. government has implicated in attacks on the West such as the interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the 2018 poisoning in the U.K. of Russian intelligence defector Sergei Skripal. Traditionally, Putin has been comparatively soft on hardline nationalists, but in 2021, a longstanding annual nationalist march in Moscow’s Pushkin Square was prohibited. Therefore, General-Colonel Ivashov appears to be the last man standing, and his harsh attack on Putin’s Ukraine policy appears authentic and deserves great attention. The most reliable Russian and Western media have been cautious or not reported the development at all, perhaps unable to figure out that it is for real or speculating that Ivashov’s hardline bent makes him a less-than-credible critic of Putin.
This appeal amounts to a full-fledged attack on Putin’s policy. Its starting point is that Russia’s degradation during Putin’s reign has been internal and systemic, ranging from the model of the state to the quality of the rule and the society. External threats exist, but they are not crucial or directly threatening the Russian state. On the contrary, strategic stability persists; nuclear arms are under reliable control; NATO forces are not growing and do not pursue any threatening activity, goes the argument in Ivashov’s statement.
Therefore, the rationale for the military escalation around Ukraine is artificial and self-serving only for Putin rather than serving a greater good for Russia. As a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent state, a member of the United Nations, entitled to individual and collective defense, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, Ivashov continues.
But the retired General also complains that the leadership of the Russian Federation so far has not recognized the results of the referendums of independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the self-proclaimed breakaway entities in Ukraine’s east. Yet, Ivashov criticizes Russia’s capture of Crimea, with its important Black Sea port at Sevastopol. He writes: “The acquisition of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia and their non-recognition as Russian by the international community (and, therefore, the overwhelming number of states in the world still consider them to belong to Ukraine) convincingly shows the failure of Russian foreign policy, and the unattractiveness of its domestic [policy].”
Ivashov’s main criticism is focused on the threat to Ukraine. He argues that the attempts to force people to “love” Russia and its leaders through ultimatums and threat are senseless and very dangerous. To use military force against Ukraine puts the very existence of Russia as a state in question. It will make Russians and Ukrainians mortal enemies forever. It will cost both sides tens of thousands of deaths, he argues. NATO members might be forced to declare war on Russia after they have suffered various losses.
A peculiar final point that Ivashov makes is that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to have placed Turkey, a member of NATO across the Black Sea from Ukraine and Russia, firmly on the side of Ukraine in the current standoff. Erdogan has criticized the Russian buildup, and visited Kyiv on Feb. 3 to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Ivashov floated the threatening prospect that Turkey may feel compelled to “liberate” Crimea and Sevastopol and perhaps also enter the Caucasus, a scenario that would, to say the least, set back, rather than advance, Putin’s ambitions.