MOSCOW — Alexander Prokhanov loves to play the bad guy. But he's no character actor. He is editor-in-chief, since its founding in 1993, of Zavtra (Tomorrow), a Russian ultra-nationalist newspaper that is fiercely anti-Western and anti-American, as well as clearly anti-Semitic and homophobic. In his mess of an office, Prokhanov, 77, invites us to sit down, pointing us toward an old sagging leather couch.
"Here sat the best of Russia's ultra-nationalists, as well as the leader of Germany's neo-Nazi group and the boss of one of Bolivia's drug cartels," the aging and paunchy man says smiling, visibly proud of the bad company he keeps.
The conversation begins with the traditional cup of tea. Prokhanov is a writer who handles humor like a stick of dynamite. His mug bears a image of Stalin. Many don't take him seriously because of his excesses. But they're wrong to dismiss his influence. Even though Zavtra doesn't sell a lot, the ideas defended in the publication have contaminated Russian society at the highest level, as high even as the Kremlin.
Prokhanov, though, is a sour man. He laments that elements in the secret services are more open to his ideology than the country's overly pragmatic president, Vladimir Putin, is. "We have a good relationship, we support each other," he claims. Then he lets out: "I support him like a Russian intercontinental missile supports the U.S."
Marginalized under the rule of Boris Yeltsin, he can now speak his mind in state-controlled media organizations. And Prokhanov and his men have close, though complicated ties with the people who really hold power in Putin's Russia, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Their relationship is so incestuous that it leaves you wondering whether it's the FSB that has infiltrated the "ultras" or the other way around.
Some of Zavtra's journalists actually work both for the newspaper and the services. Two friends, two of his regular contributors, Igor Girkin aka "Strelkov" (Shooter) and Alexander Borodai are both "former" security services members. And both played a crucial role in the armed separatist, pro-Russian movement in Ukraine.
After he helped the fall of Crimea, Strelkov became the real strong man, the "Defense Minister" of the Donbass separatists. Borodai, Russian press reported at the time, was appointed deputy director of the FSB in 2002 and put in charge of political information and "special projects." At one point he also auto-proclaimed himself "prime minister" of the Donetsk People's Republic.
More recently, however, everything has gone wrong for Prokhanov's friends, the ultra-nationalists who support the annexation of "Russian land" in eastern and southwestern Ukraine that was once part of the Tsarist empire under the name Novorossiya.
Their project to reinstate the empire has existed since the Soviet empire collapsed. Already in the 1990s, the Russian-speaking separatist leaders of Transnistria (in Moldova), Odessa and Crimea (in Ukraine) used to hold secret meetings, watched by a benevolent ex-KGB.
With war breaking out in Ukraine, Putin initially endorsed the new project of carving out Novorossiya in blood. But in February, the "Tsar of all Russias" signed the Minsk 2 agreements, which looks from afar like a peace treaty. Since then, a shaky cease fire has largely been holding in eastern Ukraine, despite recurring spates of violence.
"This is only a necessary pause in the war," Prokhanov warns. "Just enough time to integrate the Donbass to Russia. These agreements won't stop Novorossiya's history from going forward. The time of United Ukraine is over."
Despite his slavophile enthusiasm, Prokhanov can be patient. Although he finds Putin a little soft, he acknowledges a truce is necessary. "The pro-Russian fighters were exhausted," he says.
Things started to go wrong for Moscow in Ukraine last summer. The Ukrainian army not only resisted but gained ground, taking Moscow by surprise. Novorossiya stopped going forward. Worse, it retreated. Kiev's forces fought better than the Kremlin had anticipated. The rebels, in the meantime, proved weaker than hoped: it turned out that inhabitants of the Donbass weren't exactly enthusiastic about getting themselves pumped full of lead for Great Russia.
"The locals don't want to fight so we must go ourselves," a Russian soldier who "volunteered" told a Russian opposition magazine. In all areas, hints of direct Russian army involvement is costing the Kremlin dearly.
As architects of Novorossiya's failure, Strelkov and his friend Borodai were forced to resign. They were replaced by "locals" under Russian influence, obviously, but less reminiscent of Russia's secret services. The new leaders have adopted an agenda of regional autonomy instead of dreams of great imperial dominance.
At the same time, in Moscow, the man the press nicknamed "Putin's new ideologist" (perhaps prematurely), was also whisked away. Aleksandr Dugin, a Eurasist political thinker and effusive advocate of the war in Ukraine (and obviously a Zavtra man), was dismissed from the Moscow State University. He was suddenly gone from the media, together with the word Novorossiya. It seems he served his purpose.
"Dugin is resting," says his friend Prokhanov. "I'll be in charge in the meantime. Don't you worry, he'll be back."
As for Borodai and Strelkov, "the men left but their ideas remain, even in the Kremlin," the ultra-nationalist militant says. "Borodai fulfilled his mission and returned to Moscow," a well-informed source reveals before adding that "Strelkov is also in Moscow but under close surveillance from the security services so that he cannot do anything that would damage the Kremlin."
Listening to reason
On top of defeats in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin had to face a growing but silent rebellion from oligarchs badly hit by Western sanctions. Some of them lost half of their wealth. Of course, nobody dares to rebel openly especially since the authorities — probably seeking to set an example — jailed an oligarch for three months and seized his oil company.
In the autumn, after sidelining Prokhanov's men, Putin lashed out against his own subordinates. "In November, he fired employees inside the presidential administration of the Commonwealth of Independent States for having fed him with reports saying that the Russian and Russian-speaking populations in east and south Ukraine would swear allegiance to Moscow," says Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister now in the opposition. "As a matter of fact, the majority support Kiev."
With winter came more humiliation for the Kremlin. Under the weight of sanctions and the fall of oil and gas prices (which represent 50% of Russia's budget revenue), the ruble dropped 20%. What probably was the coup de grâce came in January from Yevgeny Primakov. At 85, he rarely speaks but people listen to him. And he's not a blissful West-enthusiast. On the contrary, Primakov is a great Russian statesman, a supporter of Russian might who — having been chief of the intelligence service, foreign minister and prime minister under Yeltsin — perfectly knows his country's strengths and weaknesses.
So what did Primakov say? Simply what probably a good part of Russia's elite were thinking in silence: that the Donbass belongs to Ukraine; that that the Russian army has no business in being in Ukraine; that Russia cannot afford a confrontation with the West; and finally, that the Russian authorities should focus more of diversifying the economy rather than allow it to be so dependent on raw materials.
The espionage and diplomacy master taught a lesson to the little lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin. Instead of reinforcing Russian might, his military adventurism in Ukraine was weakening it. Even his closest allies in the post-Soviet area, such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, look glum.
Putin heard the message and decided, it would seem, to start using the left side of his brain again. He grabbed the opportunity offered by François Hollande and Angela Merkel and, in February, signed the Minsk 2 agreement, even as the U.S. was threatening to arm Ukraine.
While he swears by nothing but the specific and spectacular "Russian way," the Russian leader remains a "Westerner" in the sense of the czar he so admires, Peter the Great, famous for having banned the beard, which he saw as a symbol for the backwardness of Russia's moujiks (pre-revolutionary peasants). Like his 18th century idol, Putin wants to import Western capital, techniques and know-how to modernize Russia — not to turn it into just another prosperous country, but to make Russia a power that will dominate Europe.
Biding their time
This doesn't mean that the risky Novorossiya plan won't come back. Prokhanov certainly thinks so. Interestingly, Dmitri Trenin, the director and most prominent analyst with the U.S.-run think tank Carnegie Moscow Center, agrees. "Even though it doesn't really exist in the sense that it wasn't a well-thought project but rather one that was improvised, there is such a plan," Trenin says. "Novorossiya is a folder that was on a shelf, was taken from that shelf then placed back. But it can be picked up again."
So Moscow plays the waiting game, hoping for more favorable times. A rise in oil prices would reinforce the Putin regime. But the Kremlin's biggest bet is that the president's opponents will weaken. Putin's money is on division among European Union countries, as he considers it a politically, economically and culturally heterogeneous bloc doomed to disintegrate. To accelerate this crumbling, Putin is even ready to secretly help anti-EU groups such as France's National Front.
The Kremlin also hopes that the oligarchs and political leaders in Kiev will tear each other to pieces, as the leaders of the pro-Western Orange Revolution did after 2004. Russia also expects that the Ukrainian economy, marred by corruption and reliant on Russian gas, will collapse.
Most of all, Moscow anticipates that the Europeans and Americans will grow weary of pumping tens of billions into a bottomless hole. When that happens, Moscow hopes the population will rise, especially in the Russian-speaking regions, so it can re-launch its land grab. Either that or it will return to its traditional neocolonial policy of political, military and economic pressure until the Ukrainians eventually choose a regime that's more aligned with Russia's plans. It is, after all, what the Georgians, and sometimes the Moldovans, have done.
In the meantime, the Kremlin doesn't seem exactly eager to follow the peace agreement to the letter. "The Donbass militias will become a pro-Russian army," Prokhanov warns. "And Kiev will never regain control of the border with Russia."
Moscow has already found its interest in this agreement, namely the Ukrainian Constitutional reform. Russia proposes that the new text include a neutral military status for Ukraine. In other words, it wants to ensure that Ukraine never becomes part of NATO, of the West. The Novorossiya dream isn't dead. It's a merely a work in progress.