“Putin was Playing Chess While the Rest of the World was Playing Checkers”
Lev Parnas on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
Three weeks ago, I discussed the situation in Ukraine with Lev Parnas. Parnas, remember, is the Ukrainian-American businessman who, with Russian-born businessman Igor Fruman, worked with Rudy Giuliani to achieve a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine for the Trump administration, essentially to try to target the Bidens. Parnas and Fruman’s efforts were stopped when, on October 9, 2019, both men were arrested and charged with federal campaign finance violations. Parnas subsequently blew the whistle on much of the clandestine operation around the time Congress held impeachment hearings over the matter.
The last time I spoke with him, Parnas told me he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin was posturing and would not invade Ukraine.
Now, Parnas explains why the picture has changed. I spoke to him hours after Putin, in a rambling speech, declared two Ukrainian states—Donetsk and Luhansk—to be “independent” despite parts being under Ukrainian control, and President Joe Biden consequently announced the “first tranche” of sanctions including full blocking sanctions on two significant Russian financial institutions (which collectively hold over $80 billion in assets) and on five Russian elites and their family members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 22, 2022. (Photo by Russian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity:
WARD: We talked before, and you thought Putin didn't need to invade—that he could control the government and hobble Ukraine financially. So, what's changed?
PARNAS: I think the events that unfolded turned into a perfect storm that delivered Ukraine to Putin.
WARD: Can you explain that?
PARNAS: Putin was playing chess while the rest of the world was playing checkers. By surrounding Ukraine with troops, he was able to cripple the Ukrainian economy, basically cutting it off from the world. Now he’s playing surgeon. He basically now cutting another piece of territory off, like he did with Crimea, and he’s making up history and trying to change borders. And it’s going back to what happened in Belarus and Lukashenko [the Belarusian president whose most recent election was not recognized by the West but who governs regardless] when they tried to overthrow Lukashenko and it didn't work out. He [Putin] watched how the West responded.
WARD: You mean the West did nothing?
PARNAS: Or didn't respond at the time. That gave him a little bit more assurance that he could keep pressing.
WARD: So will Ukraine fight back meaningfully?
PARNAS: I don't think Putin is going to be able to take over all of Ukraine. Ukraine is a massive country, and they have an army and they will stand and they'll fight. But I think he’s strategically trying to carve out certain pieces that will basically dismantle Ukraine and turn it into a lopsided country divided by civil war.
WARD: Will the sanctions not help?
PARNAS: Not really. Because this is not Iran. Russia and its money and its oligarchs and its energy are sold into Europe. And to the United States. And with Russia taking over Belarus and possibly Ukraine, they will have so much more resources. So the West will be dealing with a much bigger economy that, yes, they’ll be hurt by sanctions, but you have to understand who you're dealing with.
Putin doesn't care if people suffer for a long time. The rich will still be able to eat and survive. But I think a lot of us here in the West are going to really feel the difference with gas prices. And a lot of people in Europe are also going to feel a lot of difference because, as I said, Russians have purchased a lot of big parts of different industries in different countries that would make economic pressure an important thing at home, too.
WARD: So how did we get here?
PARNAS: Well, it took a combination of things. It's not one thing.
First of all, if you take a look back, a lot of people don't notice it, but it all really started with the arrest of a very close Putin ally, Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch who owns TV stations and was placed under house arrest in Ukraine last year. Putin is the godfather of his daughter. He [Medvedchuk] was the leader of the pro-Russia party. He was a very big player in all negotiations that transpired over the years because he was very close to of Putin and he was in Ukraine.
So his loss from the mediating table was bad. Sometimes it’s better to deal with the enemy you know than the one [you] don’t.
So now [what] Putin wants to do is replace Medvedchuk with a pro-Russian government. And the only way you can do that is by crippling the Ukrainian economy and crippling Zelensky. Which Putin was able to do by putting his troops on the border [and] leaving the country in economic crisis because no one was doing business there and, ultimately, all the diplomats and planes left. It begs the question: Who is really being sanctioned by the U.S.? Russia or Ukraine? Putin was given a gift.
WARD: So what’s he aiming for in terms of land?
PARNAS: He's going to go after the capital, Kiev. If he's able to take over Kiev and he's able to cut off all the communication—on top of the energy, which he already controls—he’ll play that card. It's freezing there now. So you'll have certain territories where you have a lot of Ukrainian patriots [who] will fight. The whole country won’t fight. People have families, kids, who want to survive—and everyone speaks the same language.
WARD: What about the future of President Zelensky, Ukraine’s leader?
PARNAS: Unfortunately, that doesn't look good. You hear now that the State Department is advising Zelensky to leave Kiev and go to Lviv. So obviously it doesn't look good. But when you say “leader,” I think there'll be a separation of the country to some degree. I don't know. Everything's up in the air.
WARD: And, to reiterate, you think the West imposing sanctions is just not that helpful because it cripples Ukraine as much as it cripples Russia and, in fact, all of us?
PARNAS: Listen, the sanctions cripple everybody, but, you know, that's the only thing we could do. We're obviously not going to send in soldiers. We're not going to have World War Three. Right? Everybody understands that. But I think we are going to get back to the Cold War, and it's going to be a rough ride for everybody for a while.