Russian officers predicted the rise of the Putin-Ukraine conflict 30 years ago

The latter, a mountainous enclave that had long been a cauldron of simmering tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, had become the scene of a hot war between those two countries, now freed from the Soviet yoke. As in many other remote locations, local facts had not kept pace with political change, and a nearby Russian base remained, its soldiers occasionally caught in the crossfire.

Our visits to these far-flung bases have not been officially sanctioned. When we contacted the Russian Defense Ministry, the answer was a resounding “Nyet”. So, like journalists everywhere, we decided to fan it (to make sure we bag some particularly fine vodka bottles as a potential icebreaker).

The interviews we received with these military men were amazingly candid: thoughtful and angry. There was confusion and a sense of humiliation among them that an institution that was once the pride of the Soviet “family” (as they saw it) is now a plaything for politicians.

Looking back at these interviews across the 30-year divide, I think you can see, at least in part, the seeds of discontent – particularly within the military and security apparatus – that fueled Putinism and today’s brutal war between Ukraine and Russia emerged to become larger.

One of the most memorable interviews was with Colonel Alexander Garkusha, commander of a Russian army base that was slowly being pushed out of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius by local authorities. A quiet man, he stood out on screen with the pale scar that snaked across the center of his forehead.

Garkusha told me that many of his husbands, their wives and their children in Russia have no homes to go to. They had lived on these bases for years.

Colonel Alexandar Garkusha, Commander of the Russian Army Base in Vilnius, 1992

Colonel Alexandar Garkusha, Commander of the Russian Army Base in Vilnius, 1992Recognition:ABCTV Peter Curtis

“The values ​​we grew up with have been ripped away,” Garkusha said. “The benevolence and support of the motherland – friendship, honor and dignity – are all snatched away by politicians aiming at one goal only, the seizure of power.”

Lieutenant Colonel Leonid Rudakov spoke of the difficulty in deciphering the omelet that was said to be the Soviet Army.

“We have many men whose mothers are from Kazakhstan, for example, whose fathers live in Ukraine; They could have been born and raised in Uzbekistan, studied in Moscow and their wives are from Leningrad. Our families cannot be of one or two nationalities, but of four or five.”

A third officer, Lt. Col. Stanislav Perekhov, lamented the fact that “our army was always the most powerful in the world, but now, thanks to politicians, it’s nothing”.

Others, presciently, warned of the potential for major conflicts between former Soviet neighbors.

“I would like to think that we could do without bloodshed,” said Lt. Col. Andrei Akeshian. “But given the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova and now between Russia and Ukraine (where tensions over Crimea’s ownership were already rising), I have my doubts.”

Lieutenant Colonel Yevgeny Bolichev told us: “We have always said that the army is a union of peoples and nations. Now there is a very abrupt dissolution of the army along national lines. It will lead to a tightening of inter-ethnic relations.”

Why am I returning to these interviews now? In large part because I’ve only recently been able to see her again, thanks to ABCTV’s 30th Anniversary Special foreign correspondent team will be broadcast on Thursday evening.

My reports were among the earliest for the program, which began in 1992.

Deborah Snow reports from Moscow in 1992.

Deborah Snow reports from Moscow in 1992.Recognition:ABC

Seeing these stories again after so long was a gift of renewed memory. The history of the Soviet Army particularly struck me because of the carnage being committed in Ukraine today.

It was a customized report foreign correspondent – the kind of story that could only have found a proper place in a program designed to appeal to those with a thirst for knowledge about the world beyond our shores.

My final words in that report were as follows: “There will be a growing temptation for military officials to put their weight behind a new force in politics, perhaps an aggressively nationalist one. If that happens, Russia could march to a dangerous new tune.”

Neither I nor anyone else would have guessed at the time that an obscure former spy named Vladimir Putin, then working as the right-hand man to the mayor of St. Petersburg, would become the face of a new Russian authoritarianism.

The footage in these reports, captured by experienced ABC cinematographers like Peter Curtis and Andrew Taylor, with whom I worked day to day, remains—like the work of so many later colleagues—a priceless archival record, a first draft of this tumult’s history.


The freedom we had as reporters in those early years on former Soviet territory was immense. People from all walks of life who had been banned from contact with foreign media for decades rushed to tell us their stories—even army officers on military bases. We had no email, no cell phones. We often landed with no idea what we would find on the ground until we got there. The old rule book had been thrown away and nobody was sure what the new rules were. The spirit of discovery knew no bounds.

In the meantime, of course, the Kremlin has raised the drawbridge and the ABC no longer has an office in Moscow.

When Yeltsin resigned in late 1999 and named Putin his preferred successor, he expressed hope that Russia would “enter the next millennium with… new, bright, strong, and energetic people.”

Instead, Putin has reinvented himself as the new all-powerful tsar who has scoffed at Ukraine’s right to an independent existence, worn down political opponents and obliterated dissenting media voices, especially since February’s attack on his neighbor.

It is difficult to say how the war in Russia is perceived by the masses of ordinary citizens.

Whatever version of “truth” they are fed by state media — stories about Ukrainian “Nazis” and the like threatening the security of the motherland — the body bags coming home and the mounting effects of international isolation will soon begin to tell their own story tell. Putin’s reluctance to call for a general military mobilization suggests that the war is not as popular with his people as he proclaims.

NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg warns that the conflict could drag on for years. Former Cold War statesman Henry Kissinger believes there will be an attempt at a negotiated solution in the coming months and warns that the war will be waged “to the absolute exhaustion of all concerned”.

These are many possible scenarios of how this could end, with nuclear conflict being the most horrific. The slaughter and bloodshed undeniably weighs on the Russian leader’s head.

But when I look back at those voices from 30 years ago and draw a long line to the current unspeakable suffering in Ukraine, there are some lessons to be learned from the humiliations of the past.

ABCTV’s 30th Anniversary Special foreign correspondent Program, A Wild Ride, airs Thursday evenings at 8 p.m.

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Joel McCord

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