"How Can You Win a War With the Whole World?”
Boris Yeltsin’s former son-in-law on Russia, Ukraine, the West, and whether or not Putin has gone mad
These past two weeks, I’ve had a series of conversations with Leonid Dyachenko, the former son-in-law of Boris Yeltsin, who lives in London but still has a Russian citizenship. He shared his thoughts on Russia, Ukraine, the West, and whether or not Putin has gone mad. (His answer is yes.)
Below are our interviews, edited and condensed for clarity.
WARD: What, if anything, did you hear about the May 9 festivities in Moscow on Monday?
DYACHENKO: I chatted with my friends by WhatsApp about Putin’s speech. We thought it was quite a poor speech, and we thought it sounded like he was surrendering. It was a ten- minute-long speech about nothing. It was the first time I heard a speech like that. Where was this “special military operation”? Where was the talk of [the] Russian army’s achievements and victories? He looked quite sick. I now think maybe we should not be scared of nuclear war, which is not what I was saying a few weeks ago. Now, I think it’s clear that what happens next…
WARD: What happens next?
DYACHENKO: The Russian army will become weaker and weaker. The Ukrainian army, armed with the West[‘s] heavy arms, [will] get stronger. After that, it’s just a matter of time when the Ukrainian army moves the Russians out of the occupied territories, including Crimea. I now think that Ukraine could win, which is not what I thought earlier.
WARD: Well, how did you see this play previously? I mean, I know you were surprised by the apparent poor showing by the Russian military and by the fervor of the Ukrainians to resist.
DYACHENKO: At the very beginning, when Putin collected all this huge military stuff around Ukraine, I thought that he's bluffing—he's trying to bargain something from the Western world. He wants to talk to Biden, he wants to talk to Boris Johnson—any other leaders to show his personal greatness, something like that. So I never believe[d] that he could do it because it is suicide for the Russian state. I also believe[d] the information from United States intelligence services, which [was] saying that Ukraine [would] surrender in 74 hours—something like that. But I suspected that Ukrainian people could fearlessly fight back. And they succeed[ed]. They are protecting their motherland, and they have such a huge motivation to fight back. Just go die, but never surrender.
But what actually happened with the Russian forces? They don't have any motivation. They don't understand what they are fighting for. So what actually have they been doing there? Raping woman, murdering, stealing the washing machine, for example? I heard some reports that the guys from depressed and poor Russian regions [had] never actually seen an indoor toilet, or a sink! Because they use the toilet which is outside their house, which is a gravitational one with just a hole. They’ve never seen a proper one. At the beginning of [the] war, it was [a] quite huge and well-equipped army, but it seems to me they’ve now lost half of the equipment and [suffered] about one third of casualties and wounded.
WARD: How can that be? Just because the Ukrainians are so revved up?
DYACHENKO: They are brave. They are fighting for their own home, for their independent state. It looks like the Ukrainian people are trying to force the Russians back like the Russians fought back against Hitler in 1941, when this great Moscow battle happened. So this is exactly what is happening. But now the fascists [are] Russians and the Ukrainians [are] patriots.
A demonstrator holds a placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally against the Russian invasion of Ukraine near the Russian Embassy on February 26, 2022 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
WARD: Tell me, when was the last time you were in Russia?
DYACHENKO: About a year and a half [ago].
WARD: And do you know Putin well?
DYACHENKO: The first time I met Putin [was] when he became a deputy of Pavel Borodin after his previous boss [Anatoly] Sobchak, the governor of St. Petersburg, lost the election. And, after that, Putin, using his connections with [Alexey] Kudrin and [Anatoly] Chubais, got to Moscow and was assigned a really small position, like one of the deputies of the Borodin administration. So that was when I met him for the first time. And since that time, I was meeting with him from time to time until probably the end of 1999. And the last time I saw him when he was visiting Boris Yeltsin back [in] 2000—middle of winter 2000.
WARD: And what was your impression of Putin? You said you thought he was bluffing about invading Ukraine. Why would you think he was bluffing?
DYACHENKO: I thought that he was bluffing because his first profession was a KGB officer. To do some tricky stuff—it's exactly what they've been taught to do. And so that is why I thought he was bluffing. Because I didn't expect he would go crazy.
WARD: So you do think he has gone crazy?
DYACHENKO: Yeah, definitely. But just imagine: Before the war, he knew quite well that he cannot fight NATO. He would lose the war with NATO definitely. And yet by the second day, [it] appeared that Putin actually had gone to war not just with Ukraine but with the whole world. How can you win a war with the whole world? It’s impossible. So he went crazy.
WARD: Well, what do you think the people surrounding him—the oligarchs—will do?
DYACHENKO: Nothing. The oligarchs surrendered about 15 years ago to him.
WARD: So what will happen now? I mean, will anyone try to thwart him or will there be a palace coup? I mean, is this not the ruination of Russia?
DYACHENKO: It's an interesting question. I'll go back to the history again. Can you imagine again: It's [the Battle of] Moscow, back in 1941. [Do you] think the Gestapo, SS forces, or even Wehrmacht were going to dismiss Hitler or kill him that time? No. But what happened back in 1944 in midsummer after the Allied forces landed in Normandy? When the German generals realized [what] was likely going to happen to them—to the generals, to quite senior guys—there was a coup immediately. The colonel Claus von Stauffenberg actually tried to do [a] coup and to actually bomb Hitler.
So when the evidence becomes clear that this war is lost… After that, you can imagine what Putin will do to anyone [who[ was connected with this defeat. He has started already. FSB Regiment Number Five, which was dealing as an intelligence service in Ukraine—it is reported that they are arrested.
What happened to the headquarters of [the] Black Sea Fleet? It is reported that they're arrested, including the chief commander, after the cruiser “Moscow” sunk.
And what are the field generals thinking now, when they see the evidence that they can lose this war? What's going to happen to them?
So I while do not believe that oligarchs can be involved in the revolution or coup, I do think that [the] army, FSB, the security service, National Guards, or other armed forces could do such a thing in order to dismiss Mr. Putin from his presidential position. It could be a kind of civil war or something which sheds a lot of blood.
WARD: And tell me why you think the sanctions don't work.
DYACHENKO: They are working, but it is impossible to change the regime or stop the war just using sanctions. This hasn’t happened in the world history The sanctions—they hit quite hard, but it's not the end of the world. So Russia can still sell metals, coal, oil, and gas. The people of Russia, they lived in poverty for hundreds of years, and they're still living like that, with the toilet placed outside of the house. They are growing some crops—potato or something like that—on a small piece of land nearby. So, what is changing for them? Western countries, for example, blocked some Russian banks and part of [the] Russian Federal Reserve. But a typical poor Russian guy is earning a hundred bucks per month per month, and what it changing for him? Nothing.
So, only massive international military support could end the war in Ukraine. And that is why in two months, the Western countries took [the] right decision to supply Ukraine with the heavy weapon[s], to help them to fight. Before the war started, a lot of political analysts had been joking [about] if NATO [was] going to fight Russia. And the answer was yes. NATO is going to fight Russia until the last Ukrainian soldier remain[s] fighting.
WARD: Do you get to see the Russian news from where you are?
DYACHENKO: No—I stopped. My wife's aunt was visiting us in our house in London until beginning of March. And we had a Russian TV channel called Kartina TV. But that propaganda, even here in the UK, affected my wife’s aunt so badly that she actually flew back to Russia.
DYACHENKO: Because she cannot stay with the people who hate this war, who support Ukraine. So she just said, “I’m going home.”
WARD: So you’ve sent me your book on your late father-in-law. It’s very funny.
DYACHENKO: Yes, it’s my personal view from inside the Yeltsin family
WARD: When did you write it, and when was it supposed to be published?
DYACHENKO: I started during the lockdown. I just decided to put something of my memory on paper because I remember some not-so-well -known cases which happened inside the family and hadn't been published. So I decided to write something down and published something of it on the Echo of Moscow website.
WARD: So you did publish it on a website?
DYACHENKO: Yes. I publish[ed] it, but you cannot find it online anymore because the Russian government closed the site. The government of Russia actually liquidated the radio station and their website.
WARD: You mean they hacked it—they took it down?
DYACHENKO: Not hacked it per se. Echo of Moscow was [a] quite liberal radio station. So, [the] Russian government decided to just liquidate the company and stop its shows from airing and any interviews and content from being published or accessed.
WARD: I'm assuming you would not be welcome in Russia now.
DYACHENKO: I don’t know. The former Echo of Moscow Chief Editor Alexey Venediktov now is called a “foreign agent” or something like that. I don't think there is any charge against me directly, but I’m supporting Ukraine in this particular conflict. And I'm not hiding my position. And just for that, you can be prosecuted and sent to prison for 15 years in Russia.
WARD: If you say what?
DYACHENKO: If you call the war “war,” for example. In Russia, it's forbidden to call this military operation “war.” If you say so, you can be punished, fined or actually be taken to prison.
WARD: Do you know people that that's happened to?
DYACHENKO: Yeah, lots.
WARD: In Moscow?
DYACHENKO: About five thousand, or maybe even more.
WARD: Five thousand people in the last six weeks?
DYACHENKO: That happened when actually it started. It started two months ago. So during that time, a new law, which was issued immediately in one day, about five thousand—maybe even more, because I'm talking about Moscow, but I think if I'm talking about the whole country, it could be more. Maybe 16,000. You can get some information about this on [the] OVD-Info website. I don’t know. But lots of people. If you go with a just plain sheet of paper on a street of Moscow, you'll be arrested immediately. Just with a plain sheet of paper. There is no sign; nothing is written on the sheet of paper, but the police [are] arresting you immediately.
WARD: So how do you get your news from Russia? I mean, obviously a lot of us don't really know what's going on there at the moment.
DYACHENKO: We have a huge feed of information. First of all, thank god, there is this Radio Free, which has [a] YouTube channel called Current Time. And of course lots of other YouTube channels, Messenger “Telegram” channels, which actually provide quite a huge bit of information.
WARD: Well, for example, I know somebody who had an American passport and a Russian passport who flew into Moscow recently and who had to re-swear allegiance to the motherland and to Putin. She said it was very stressful. They kept her for questioning for four hours. Does that sound right?
DYACHENKO: I think lots of people [are] just hiding the presence of American passport if they have [an] American passport. Because to tell that you have an American passport, you can be charged and called [a] “national traitor.”
WARD: You can be charged in Russia?
DYACHENKO: [As] a traitor. There’s another article in this law stating that if they found any proof that you support Ukraine, for example, and if you have this so-called double citizenship and an American passport, I think they can even fine all your property there. I never heard about any case, of course, because they're hiding it, but [there] is such a law. So all these people [who have] money or property in United States or anywhere in the world [that is] an enemy state. Because it's officially announced that United States, European Union, Great Britain—[they’re] enemy state[s] for Russia.
WARD: So tell me something: I mean, what I hear is that the Russian people really are behind Putin. They feel that they've been blamed and there's a lot of bigotry against them. They feel they haven't done anything, and it's just made them more supportive of Putin.
DYACHENKO: Imagine yourself back in the time [of] Germany, 1939, And you are asking people in Germany what do they think about Hitler: Do you support Hitler? What’s going to be the answer? Of course! [He’s the] Fuhrer, a great guy. He leads our country to prosperity, and so on. This is exactly what's happening now in Russia. Because if you are watching Russian TV channels, it's all propaganda, 24 hours days, seven days a week.
But you know in Germany, if you ask a person in the summer [of] 1945, for example, it's going to be [an] absolutely different answer.