Russia: A sick man with a gun

Anne Applebaum in conversation with Lukasz Pawlowski

For many European countries even to start thinking about Russia as a threat, 20 years after the Cold War ended, requires a paradigm shift. So says Anne Applebaum, as she sees political leaders who made their careers in conditions of European peace flounder in the current military crisis.

Lukasz Pawlowski: Is Russia really so strong or is it more a case of the West being so weak?

Anne Applebaum: Our weakness and strengths are mismatched. Certainly Russia is strong in one area in which we are weak: the West has lost interest in using its military, and they are just getting a taste for using theirs.

LP: It has invested a lot of money in it.

The US ambassador’s forum with Anne Applebaum, 7 February 2013, Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: US Embassy Kyiv. Source:Flickr

AA: Yes, though in other senses Russia’s “strength” is questionable. The country is so corrupt it puts the legitimacy of the system continuously in question. The major reason behind Putin’s policy in Ukraine is his will to remain in power. It may seem absurd but he’s afraid of social unrest. He would not allow Boris Nemtsov to be killed and would not be jailing dissidents if he was not afraid. He runs a system, which cannot sustain itself without constantly resorting to violence. It’s a sign of weakness.

LP: This is a paradox which I cannot figure out. How is it possible that we see Russia as an extremely weak state – with a lagging economy, omnipresent corruption and broken infrastructure – but at the same time present it as a global superpower, with an almost almighty leader who can easily exploit his opponents’ weaknesses?

AA: There are two huge advantages Russia has on a global stage. The first lies in the fact that Putin and the people around him possess political tools we cannot even imagine in the West. It’s as if Barack Obama was not only the president of the United States but also the chairman of Exxon, owner of the New York Times and all the major television networks, as if he ran the FBI and the CIA and, on top of that, controlled Congress. That’s the kind of power Putin and his entourage have. They own the country.

The second thing they have – and this factor is strangely underrated at the moment – is a nuclear arsenal. If Russia was Albania and it had invaded Ukraine, we would immediately help Kyiv. The main reason we are not doing so now is not because we are too weak, but because people are afraid of Putin’s nuclear weapons, which he is in fact constantly threatening to use.

LP: That’s the same type of situation we had during the Cold War.

AA: Exactly, we were afraid then too. The West didn’t help Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Poland in 1981, did we?

LP: When Russia attacked Ukraine and annexed the Crimea, the former British foreign secretary Malcom Rifkind said we are facing “probably the most serious geopolitical crisis since the end of Cold War.” That means it was a more serious than 9/11 or the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the western response has been a lot weaker. Why?

AA: I think he meant the most serious European crisis. I can’t imagine he would say it was more serious than 9/11.

LP: Still the response has been weak. What are the reasons? Fear of nuclear weapons?

AA: First of all the West is not united. And secondly, until last year Russia has not been seen as a serious problem, at least not in the United States. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, the state of the economy and many other issues were much higher on the American priority list.

LP: In 2012, during the presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said that Russia was America’s number one enemy…

AA: He said that unthinkingly and he was immediately laughed out.

LP: How do you know he didn’t really mean it?

AA: At one point somebody I know tried to convince him to defend it and justify his position. Romney declined. He apparently decided it was a mistake and did not repeat it again. By the way, that brief conversation in which he made the remark was the only one about Russia during the whole 2012 campaign.

LP: What’s the major long-term goal of Russian foreign policy?

AA: To roll back the changes of 1991 and 1989. They want to achieve it by breaking up Europe, destroying the EU and delegitimizng NATO, thus getting the Americans out of Europe. They’ve been working on these projects for a long time.

LP: But that’s impossible!

AA: Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean that it can’t be tried, and it doesn’t mean that the effort won’t cause a lot of damage along the way. International communism was also impossible – it never worked and never would. And yet they tried.

For the last 20 years Russia has invested huge sums of money in business across Europe – they bought companies, agents of influence, football clubs, etc. The purchase of the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, did not happen after Crimea. It happened many years ago. They have also set up an expensive propaganda apparatus, which now has branches in every country, and have been funding radical parties in most European countries – National Front in France, Jobbik in Hungary, Syriza in Greece. Now and again they have some successes.

LP: For example?

AA: The Greek parliamentary elections were a big success for Russia. Both the far Left and the far Right party that now run Greece in coalition have two things in common: they hate austerity and they are pro-Russian. Leaders of both parties have close links to Alexander Dugin, the propagandist of Russian fascism.

LP: The place where Russians invested the most is London, and still the British government is very critical of Putin.

AA: The Russians have not been as successful at buying senior British politicians as they have elsewhere in Europe, and don’t control any important British companies. When compared to the total value of assets that flow through the City of London from all over the world, the amount of Russian money invested in the UK is not that significant. The British economy, like the German and American economies, is simply too big to be bought. The countries where Russian influence works better are usually weaker, smaller and with a corrupt political class.

LP: You might say it’s not so much a Russian success, but the failure of the EU…

AA: Russians benefit from the situation which was already in place and which they have been monitoring closely. Putin doesn’t have to invent the European far right or far left – they already exist. We don’t need him to put the EU under pressure either, it’s happening already. There are many people who are anti-European, anti-NATO, anti-American. All the Russians need to do is throw them a little money.

LP: Almost exactly a year ago you wrote that the West must counter Russian propaganda and you reminded readers that it “used to be quite good at this: simply by being credible truth-tellers, Radio Free Europe and the BBC language services provided our most effective tools in the struggle against communism”. Now Frederica Mogherini is tasked to present a plan for such counteraction by June.

AA: I don’t believe she’ll succeed.

LP: Why?

AA: Because it would require a level of commitment that the EU bureaucracy, and particularly its external affairs service, does not have. I have some hopes for smaller NGOs like the European Endowment for Democracy, and some individual European states may help, but I’m not expecting much from the EU itself.

LP: What about NATO – is it a viable structure today? Only recently president Obama refused to meet with its chairman, Jens Soltenberg, even though he applied for such a meeting well in advance. Great Britain has announced it might significantly reduce its military budget and lower the number of soldiers in its army to a 250-year low. What’s your understanding of these decisions?

AA: We need to completely rethink NATO – where are its bases, how is it run, maybe even who its members are – just as we need to completely rethink our information policy and the funding of political parties in Europe. How is it possible that the National Front can take 40 million euros from a spooky Czech-Russian bank? How is it possible that Russian disinformation appears regularly in mainstream media all across Europe? To prevent these things, each individual European country would need to sit up and realize that Russia is a threat and then to react accordingly. Almost nobody has done that.

LP: Both the European Union and NATO are multinational structures. Who do you think can be the agent behind such change?

AA: Poland could be an important agent of change.

LP: It’s too weak.

AA: Until recently, Poland was considered the absolute leader on European relations with the former USSR, and indeed inspired several absolutely critical EU institutional reforms. Poland created the Eastern Partnership, for example, which of course helped pave the way for the Maidan revolution in Kyiv.

Theoretically Germany could make big changes to European Union – particularly in conjunction with Poland, Britain or other states – but Berlin is very ambivalent about its own power, and actually avoids taking the lead unless there is a serious crisis. A third possibility is the United States. But first the presidential administration must realize there’s an important problem with the transatlantic alliance.

LP: Why don’t they?

AA: I have met White House officials. They say that the Ukrainian crisis is a regional issue that doesn’t pose a threat to the United States. They also say that Putin is bluffing – and it’s just a matter of time before he falls.

LP: Yet the Congress has urged president Obama a few times already to get more involved in the conflict and provide Ukraine with military help. The resolutions were passed with both Democratic and Republican support.

AA: There are some people in Congress who see the magnitude of the challenge, but not in the White House. And for something as big as the reform of NATO you need the full support of the president.

LP: But maybe president Obama is right about not getting too engaged in a struggle with Putin? Russian money reserves are shrinking, western dependence on its resources is diminishing, Chinese domination in eastern Asia is already indisputable. Why worry then? Let’s just wait for Russia to crumble under its own weight just as the USSR did.

AA: A sick man with a gun is still a man with a gun. If Putin decides on his way down that the only way to remain in power is to create a real crisis, he’ll do it. We’re hoping he will lose power before he does anything truly awful. If we’re lucky then he will. If we aren’t, tensions may rise beyond what we can now imagine.

LP: Ilya Ponomarev with whom we talked a few weeks ago said that the year 2017, the centenary of Bolshevik Revolution, will bring another political earthquake to Russia. Do you agree?

AA: I really don’t know. I can’t predict because I’m too likely to be wrong.

LP: I guess that’s the case with most of predictions…

AA: It’s particularly true in Russia. Although change can come rapidly there – it has in the past – it’s also true that the current system could last a very long time, even if it’s in many ways dysfunctional. The Soviet Union was also an impoverished state where nothing worked the way it was supposed to, and yet it lasted for 70 years. It can be the same with Putin’s Russia.

LP: Especially when 80 to 90 per cent of Russians support the president.

AA: If you believe the polls…

LP: Even independent analysis, such as that conducted by the Levada Center, confirm these results.

AA: Imagine you’re a taxi driver in Kranoyarsk. Somebody calls you saying “Hello, this is Levada Independent Polling Center in Moscow. Could you please tell me, whether you like the president?” What are you going to say? Of course you’re going to say you like him. One cannot do a poll in an authoritarian country and expect realistic results.

LP: In Russia even such dramatic events like the killing of Boris Nemtsov provoke hardly any social opposition. Aren’t we therefore naïve in putting too much hope in the Russian opposition?

AA: There are two separate issues here: one is whether most Russians approve of the current situation. I believe they don’t. Another is whether their disapproval will bring about a street revolution. Although I hope I’m wrong, I don’t think that it will.

LP: What is more probable then, a coup d’état?

AA: There could be a coup, an assassination or – as Ponomarev seems to hope – an internal change in the political system, which will bring new people to the political scene.

LP: Some warn that the toppling of Putin’s regime might lead to a break-up of Russia and the kind of geopolitical chaos that nobody would be able to control. In other words Putin might be a bastard but he is still “our bastard”.

AA: I once wrote an article in which I went through obituaries of every USSR leader published in the American press. Every single time one of them died or – as was the case with Khrushchev – was replaced, American papers speculated about the hard liners who were supposedly on the verge of taking over power and the great crisis that was about to follow. Even when Stalin died, The Times wrote a long obituary in which it warned against Stalin’s radical followers who were waiting to grab power. Can you imagine? Stalin – one of the greatest murderers in history died and they were worried about who was coming next!

LP: What is the reason for these fears?

AA: Russia has no institutional mechanism for change. When a leader goes, we not only don’t know who his replacement will be, we also have no idea how he will be chosen. There is no procedure, it’s always a power struggle.

LP: There’s at least one more argument against toughening our policy against Russia. Andrei Kolesnikov from the Carnegie Center claims that sanctions and increased military pressure from the West may backfire: “In the face of growing economic pressures, Russia’s middle class is steering clear of political involvement. The working class is no different. The more the West increases its pressure, the less likely it becomes that this will change.” Do you agree?

AA: The sanctions are not aimed at ordinary Russians but at the elite. That’s how they were designed. What does hurt ordinary people is Putin’s response: his boycott of western food definitely harms working class and middle class Russians.

LP: There are pundits who argue we can only reform Russia if it’s integrated into the global economy. Otherwise the Kremlin will resort to military options.

AA: We’ve been trying to make Russia part of the global economic system world for the last 20 years! That was Clinton’s policy, Bush’s policy and even Obama’s policy at first. Why was Russia in the G8? Why was Russia allowed to join the Council of Europe, or the World Trade Organization? The idea was that Russians would feel appreciated and become a part of the western world.

LP: But then the West decided to enlarge NATO and accept former communist countries, including Poland. Some say it was a violation of Russia’s sphere of influence, which now Russia is trying to undo.

AA: Both NATO and the EU are clubs which require their members to meet a given list of conditions. That’s why it takes so long to get in. Many countries did this but Russia from the very beginning made it clear that it would not change its political system to meet the requirements of European institutions. I think if Yeltsin, and later Putin, had been willing to make truly fundamental changes – and this was said by many people, many times – then there absolutely could have been a discussion of NATO membership for Russia. But they never were and there never was.

LP: When Vladimir Putin became president he was long seen as a pragmatist who really wanted to improve his relations with the West. His visit in 2009 at Westerplatte was…

AA: …impressive, I agree. At that period of time, he had decided to ease some of the “history conflicts” with his neighbours, in order to open up new business opportunities. He did the same thing in Budapest. Of course it was right for Poland to encourage this, and to invite him to acknowledge the real date of the beginning of the Second World War – and thus the USSR’s role in starting it. It was also right for the West to try to have a pragmatic relationship with Russia for so many years. The mistake was to take one step further and imagine that Russia had already become a western country, which it never was, and to imagine that it no longer posed any military threat whatsoever. I don’t think that any Polish government ever made that mistake, but others did.

LP: Europe is equally incapable of coping not only with Russia but with the other challenges it’s facing – in North Africa and the Middle East. What is wrong with us? Were our weaknesses always there or do they result from some major mistake made during the last decades?

AA: There have been three important western political miscalculations in the past two decades. The first was in the 1990’s, when we assumed that the fall of the Soviet Union meant the end of Russia’s role as a world power and the end of any possibility of military conflict in Europe. The second mistake was to admit too many countries into the euro.

LP: What do you mean?

AA: There’s nothing wrong with the common currency in principle, but admitting countries which were unprepared like Italy, Spain and Greece – particularly Greece – was a disastrously bad decision which benefited no one, except possibly Germany. A generation of southern Europeans has been impoverished as a result.

The third bad decision was the invasion of Iraq which misdirected western military power and attention at an issue which could have been solved differently.

LP: And what about Putin’s claim that there’s some cultural deficiency in the West which prevents us from standing our ground?

AA: By cultural deficiency Putin means the advancement of gay rights and that is of course ridiculous. No, western weakness is really a political, not a cultural issue. The level of political debate in almost every European country, including Poland, has deteriorated significantly in the past decade. Radical changes in the media – the growth of the Internet and anonymous commentary, plus the bankruptcy of traditional media – have made it impossible for news to be either gathered or discussed as seriously as it once was. At the same time, it’s very easy for teams of Internet trolls to organize and manipulate online discussion. As a result, European countries which once had outward-looking, intellectual political debate have now became hysterical and shallow. Germany still has excellent private media and the UK still has good state media, in the form of the BBC, but most European countries have neither.

The non-stop need for news and the constant invasion of privacy are now making politics unattractive too. How many people want to live in a world where every misinterpreted word or misunderstood joke can be spun into a stupid scandal? As a result, fewer competent people now want to become either journalists or politicians, both in Europe and the United States.

LP: Is it not so that the kind of politicians we have mirror social expectations?

AA: At the moment, most of our political leaders made their careers in the post-Cold War era of globalization and European peace. Now they have woken up and suddenly found themselves in a situation of military crisis. There’s been a change in what’s expected of them and they are floundering – not least because many have not even understood the change yet. For many European countries even to start thinking about Russia as a threat again, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, requires a total paradigm shift, a Copernican revolution.

LP: What can Europe as a whole do now?

AA: Europe very badly needs a common foreign policy and probably a common defence policy, in addition to and in conjunction with NATO. No European country on its own – not even Germany, France or Britain – has any significant influence over the Middle East, Russia, China or the United States. But if on their own they don’t matter, together they are the biggest and the most powerful country in the world. What is Europe doing instead? Wasting time on ridiculous, petty regulations and a common currency for which some countries were totally unprepared. We need a leap of imagination and of leadership.

Published 22 April 2015
Original in English
First published by Kultura Liberalna 326 (2015)

Contributed by Kultura Liberalna © Anne Applebaum, Lukasz Pawlowski / Kultura Liberalna / Eurozine


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