Hello, and welcome to a special Open Democracy Russia debate podcast from the Observatoire de la Russie at CERI-Sciences Po in Paris. My name is Ollie Carroll, I’m editor of oDRussia, and I’m delighted to be joined by two real experts of Russian foreign policy, a French scholar and a Russian expert.
Marie Mendras is the author of ‘Russian Politics: The paradox of a weak state’ and professor here at SciencesPo University.
Fyodor Lukyanov is editor and founder of the authoritative Russia in Global Affairs journal, and a man with an ear very close to the ground when it comes to elite foreign policy thinking.
The focus of our discussion today is Russia’s role in international politics. Though still an important player on the global scene, Russia’s foreign policy fortunes have taken quite a battering of late. Domestically much weaker, its controversial positions abroad, most especially in relation to Syria, are testing its already narrow circle of friends.
We’re looking to probe Russia’s foreign policy conduct from two critical positions — one inside and one outside Russia. What we want to get at is the factors that drive foreign policy in Russia. We want to understand who drives it. And in whose interests — the elites or ordinary people? In the end, does it always play out in the in long-term interests of Russia?
My great thanks to both Marie and Fyodor for agreeing to take part in the debate. I wanted to begin with you, Marie, by asking you for your own personal reflections on Russia’s international behaviour. As an academic teaching Western students. What are the first things you tell someone who is new to Russian foreign policy? And does anything remain an enigma for you yourself?
Prof. Marie Mendras:
In my course, I insist on the need to understand Russia’s domestic situation, the legacy of history and perceptions among the Russian public and the elite. Unless we understand perceptions better, we have absolutely no chance of getting to the rationale, the logic, the momentum of Russian foreign policy.
My belief is that today the Russian elites have a problem. They are ambivalent. They would like Russia to be a big power; that’s easy for them, since it’s what they knew all until the early 1980s. Yet at the same time, they know that things have changed, dramatically, and that Russia no longer has the same capacity to act in international affairs.
The question that most Europeans are asking about Russia, and certainly the question that my students most often ask me about Russia is: why is the Russian state not trying to be a better partner? Why doesn’t Russia want to act as a broker, as a positive player, to help solve conflicts, in particular the conflict in Syria? Why does Russia often act more as a spoiler in relations with us, rather than a positive mediator or as a positive partner?
OC: So Fyodor, is it fair to say that Russia sees its foreign policy role in purely negative terms: blocking, spoiling, vetoing? And if so, is that an efficient way of defending national interests?
When we assume Russia is a spoiler, then it means that one side, the West, knows what to do. It means the US, Europe, maybe some Arab countries know what to do. And then there is Russia, which understands that this way is right, but on purpose spoils that. Well, I’m afraid that this picture is not correct. In fact, the problem with Syria, one of many problems we have today, is that no one knows what to do. There are no good solutions. You have a situation in chess — I think it’s a German word — called Zugzwang. When any move makes the situation worse. This is what we have.
If I may, I wanted to go to the beginning of Marie’s remarks. There are two ways you can analyse political developments. One, the more or less liberal one, is that the domestic defines foreign policy, and countries behave in international affairs by projecting according to their internal position or view. The other way is the realist view, which counters that actors operate according to non—changing rules in international affairs.
In today’s world, I don’t think we can use either of those approaches, because globalisation means we have no border between the domestic and international. Strangely enough, Putin understands this very well. He believes the world today is absolutely unpredictable, ungovernable, risky and dangerous. And, even worse, you cannot isolate yourself from this environment.
Putin is not Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un. He knows something about globalisation. Just before the election, he published a series of substantial articles on international relations. His basic view was that everything that the major powers are doing in world affairs today is wrong. You start wars, and you get completely unexpected results; you launch a single currency, and the single currency becomes a problem for everyone; you try to change regimes, and then you get a completely different regime to the one you expected.
His anti-Western position now is very different to the anti-Western position he took some five or six years ago, when he delivered his famous Munich speech. At that time, it was a very offensive position to take. He wanted to say: “you guys, you disregard us, you disrespect us, and we will force you to change your mind”. This time it is very defensive: “everything you do is wrong, you don’t understand what you are doing. We need to protect ourselves from this instability, which is spilling over”. And this is where we arrive at the inter-linkage between foreign and domestic. Domestically, Putin tries to stop or to minimise channels through which the external can influence the domestic situation. This is not necessarily cracking down on NGOs; it might be Islamic fundamentalism; it might be economic turbulence and so on.
At the same time, Putin understands he cannot close down the country. He is trying to achieve an equilibrium — to isolate politically, but to engage economically. This is where you get the contradiction between a rather active position in joining the WTO, and the Russian bid to join the OECD, and at the same time his effort to close down the funding of Russian NGOs, a raft of new legislation, and a completely different approach to international organisations and Russian international commitments.
OC: Marie, what was missing from that description of Russian foreign policy?
MM: Fyodor, what you just described is very disturbing. You describe Putin’s thinking in entirely protectionist terms: the world around is hostile, and the ‘outside’ seems to be anything that is not strictly controlled by the Russian authorities. You present a position that is not only defensive, but also retracting from a policy of engagement with neighbouring countries, from engaging in real economic globalisation. I do not see Putin engaging economically. He may be joining the WTO, but this is only after 15, or 18 years. This is coming very late, when in the meantime China and countries like India, Brazil and others have made so much progress.
You are also describing an elite in Moscow that doesn’t understand our way of thinking. You said that Moscow believes the West thinks it knows the way to solve the Syrian question, but this is just not right. If we remember back to the beginning of the Arab Spring, in Tunisia in December 2010, we were all taken by surprise. We all had to adjust. All of us made many mistakes or were too slow in reacting. There was a lot of engagement with Moscow on those issues. We never pretended to know, and today we certainly do not pretend to know how to solve the Syria issue. We can’t be sure what new regime will emerge in Syria, in six months or a year. We do not know what Syria will be like in 10 years, but we know how dramatic it is today.
You present Putin’s position as trying to keep things as they are, which would mean that what we have is a) stable and b) good. How the Russian government say that the situation in Syria today — or sometime ago in Libya — is stable, or good? And that trying to do something to stop Bashar al—Assad’s regime from killing its own population, would be creating destabilisation? The destabilisation is there!
What I find troubling is this: that Russia claims to be adopting a wise position by doing nothing. And that the West is taking risks, because it is trying to do something to save the situation. You see, it’s not a stable situation; it’s a terrible situation. The conflict is spreading, and will continue to spread.
So I think we have touched on maybe the core disagreement between the official Russian reading and our position in the West. Our position is most certainly not to go blindly for more foreign intervention. But it’s much more difficult for us in democratic societies to tolerate so much disproportionate violence. We are countries that have been built on the project of peace in Europe, after the Second World War. The core value is peace. And what we see is a situation of war, of conflict —
FL: Nobody is saying that the situation in Syria, or previously in Libya, is stable. Of course, with the Arab Spring everything has been destabilised. To keep the status quo was impossible. You will remember that in the Libyan case, Russia quite unexpectedly abstained. Now, a majority of experts — and I think all inside the ruling group — believe that decision was a mistake. A mistake, because it was seen that NATO abused —
MM: Do you believe that it was a mistake — you personally?
FL: That’s a difficult question. I think the result we got was not good at all. Because the fate of Libya, I’m afraid, is very bad and very unhappy. It’s not at all guaranteed that this country will survive. And worst of all was that we lost trust, because of course NATO interpreted this UN resolution in a particular way. From the very beginning, the idea was regime change. So we don’t need to be hypocritical —
MM: But you knew that. The Russian side knew this very well.
FL: Yes, yes, exactly. The Russian side knew this, and that’s why everyone now believes that it was a mistake by Medvedev, because it was a personal decision by Medvedev not to veto. The Foreign Minister was against, everybody was against. Medvedev decided — and we still don’t know why — but he decided to go along with the others —
MM: Your position at the time was not for a veto —
FL: My position was not for a veto. I thought that if Russia abstained, Russia should have taken distance from the whole situation. This was what Russia actually did, but unfortunately a lot of statements were then made to the contrary. And, of course, when Putin demonstrated his rejection of the decision, his disagreement, this was a signal to everybody that it was not a consolidated decision.
What Libya did was compel a group of people in Russia — the elites and the general public — to say ‘never again’. ‘Never again’. That’s why the reaction to Syria was so different. And as for status quo versus non-status quo, stability versus non-stability, I think that from the beginning of the conflict the US and Europe had an extremely one-sided picture of what was going on in Syria. We harbour no illusions about the Syrian regime. By the way, Bashar al-Assad, was no big friend of Russia: he was a client. Don’t forget, he became president of Syria in the year 2000, but his first and only visit to Russia was in 2005, when it was absolutely impossible to postpone it any longer.
MM: So why does Russia continue to arm Bashar today? The fact that only Russia, Iran and a few other countries continue to support Bashar makes you, Russia, look like an ally. I do understand that in Moscow people might talk about al-Assad in terms of ‘Oh he’s just a client, we have to honour arms deals etc’. But our perception here in Europe — and I think it’s important to share perceptions — is that you are arming a criminal regime.
FL: We have to make a distinction here. Initially, this arms contract factor played a role. Many in the Russian defence industry and elsewhere thought that if we follow American foreign policy and abandon our clients once again, that could be very bad for the future. That was certainly a factor. But quite soon afterwards, everyone realised that business as usual with Bashar al-Assad was not going to be possible in the fiture.
There is a principle defining the Russian position, however strange that may sound. It’s not about al-Assad, it’s not about Syria, it’s not even about the Middle East. What it is about is that, in the case of civil war, it is wrong to intervene on any one side, because the consequences will be bad. ‘Don’t do it’.
I think that this is the main idea, and it’s not even about the sacred idea of sovereignty. Of course, part of Putin’s philosophy is that sovereignty should never be touched —
MM: That’s not what Putin did in Georgia in 2008
FL: Okay, okay. double standards, double standards [laughs]
MM: Double standards, thank you!
FL: They are everywhere.
MM: The Georgian war is only four years ago. You remember, Fyodor, how very brutal it was to see, in August, the sight of Russian troops on the territory of Georgia. You had a very clear image of Russia not respecting the sovereignty of an independent state. So you must see that when you say Russian foreign policy based on principle in Libya, Syria or wherever, the Western observer simply cannot buy into this. Also, by the way, look at what happened in Chechnya, where the two wars in the 1990s and —
FL: Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation
MM: Exactly. When it was the exact inverse proposition, you used a ‘principle’ to go to a very destructive war. Twice. The argument was that to defend the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, an army could go to war with the civilian population. So you’ll understand why I don’t find it convincing that’s Putin’s foreign policy is guided by either abstract, moral principles, or international law.
FL: It’s not moral. It’s not abstract. It’s very concrete. Very concrete. First, there are a lot of differences between Syria and Georgia. These are completely different stories. The Georgian case had a long pre-history, starting in the last phase of the Soviet Union. Of course, the Georgian case had a global dimension too. Medvedev, who is sometimes very frank, admitted last year when talking to army officers in southern Russia, that actually it was a war to stop NATO enlargement. Okay, whether that was a wise thing to say or not, I don’t know. But Saakashvili played into Russian hands —
MM: And you think that was the major reason why Russia went to war in August 2008?
FL: I think it was one of the most important reasons. Not the only one, but one of the main ones. It’s what Medvedev said. And what was achieved in the end.
MM: But you intervened. You started with a principle that, in the case of tensions so on, it is wrong to intervene. But Russia clearly intervened on the side of the Ossetians, or whatever group in Ossetia, and on the side of Abkhazia. You can understand that we feel puzzled —
FL: You feel puzzled. But, okay, if you feel it is the same, then do the same. Why don’t Western powers intervene in Syria?
MM: Well, you know precisely. It’s because all countries would like to have a United Nations decision.
FL: The United States has not cared much about that previously. If there was a real interest then I think this could be settled without Russian approval. This is what Russia did in Georgia, if you wanted a parallel. But again, I don’t see a lot of similarities between Syria and Georgia. In Georgia, we had a very specific or particular situation with a territory which formally was Georgian, but de facto ceased to be 20 years ago. De facto it was not Georgia; de facto it was the territory of Russia. I’m sorry to say that, but that was the reality. If Mikhail Saakashvili thought he could change this, then I’m sorry that was his mistake. In Syria, we have civil war —
MM: May I just stop you for one minute on this term ‘civil war’? As you know, in the first months of this terrible attack by the regime against its civilian population, we never talked in terms of a civil war. The initial expression of the population was peaceful demonstration, an uprising against a corrupt, criminal regime. It was the regime of Bashar al-Assad that started the violence.
We had a sense that that the Russian authorities wanted very quickly to label the situation in Syria as a civil war, so as to build an argument along the lines of: ‘if it is a civil war, you have two sides, that you should treat equally.’
FL: Sorry, what is the difference between an uprising and a civil war?
MM: The fact of saying, very early on, that it is a civil war, has made it possible for Moscow to say that foreign countries should be neutral. So you avoid putting more responsibility for the violence and the killings on the regime, a regime that had the capacity to repress, to kill. The Russian position, that the two sides should be treated equally, both are equally responsible, has been repeated endlessly by Foreign Minister Lavrov in particular. But this position cannot and will never be accepted by a Western government, because it is simply not the case.
FL: Okay, so it will never be accepted by a Western government. So what? Let’s assume the Russian position will not change, because it will not change —
OC: Does anybody in the Russian government now regret taking such a position over Syria?
FL: No, I don’t think so. It’s more or less a consensus position. The only group in Russia which has doubts are the Russian Muslims. Because we are now in a very unusual position: we are in confrontation with almost all the Arab world, and that is not typical for Russia. We are used to being on the other side. But I see no doubts about the policy within the administration.
MM: And so in your view this explains Russia’s refusal to veto sanctions against the regime?
FL: We are quite deep into this crisis. I don’t see how sanctions could be —
MM: At the time, let’s say a year ago, six months ago…
FL: A year ago, I think that there was still a very strong aftertaste of Libya. Of course, there was a willingness to show that, without Russia’s cooperative stance, the Americans and others could not solve this problem. You said initially that my suggestion that the West behaves as if it knows what to do was wrong. But at the same time —
MM: I can tell you we did not have a pre-established plan of action
FL: But the default solution proposed by Westerners and Gulf states — who by the way have a completely different agenda — was ‘let’s remove Assad’. That was seen as a solution for the Syrian crisis. I’m afraid that was initially the wrong pre-condition. The Assad regime still has a power base: not the suppressed, but those who fear more changes —
MM: I would not call it a power base, but a capacity base. In a country where the army kills its own people, you cannot talk of a social base —
FL: But if all Syria’s minorities are afraid that, for example, the Sunnis will come and take revenge for anything, that is not a good thing-
MM: We came to a time, last spring, really, when the removal of Bashar al-Assad seemed to most countries a necessary condition to make progress. You will remember how in early June, Vladimir Putin began his first post-election trip in Belarus, Minsk. Then he went to Berlin for lunch, and dinner in Paris with freshly elected François Hollande. The conversation between the French president and the Russian president was quite tense. Hollande stressed that he did not understand how a political solution could be discussed while al-Assad was still there, because al-Assad had gone beyond the limits. Putin stubbornly repeated that he did not agree. I think it’s important to remember that that’s when the capacity for Russia to play the role of a mediator was lost. Don’t you think that was a lost opportunity?
FL: That remains to be seen. Frankly, I see a slightly different development. Since June, the political desperation on the side of those who endorse the Syrian opposition has been increasing. Now you will hear a lot of statements to the contrary. That, actually, Syria’s opposition is not so good. Politically they are not unified and there is a growing element of Islamic radicalism.
We try to understand logic, so let me summarise the Syrian case in two sentences. Russia is trying to avoid a situation where the Libyan case, and Libyan methodology will be implemented as a rule
MM: You use the word avoid. It is not a positive capacity
FL: It is not a positive capacity, but it is a capacity.
OC: To move on to discuss what might potentially be seen as a positive capacity, I was wondering what kind of a role Russia could play in resolving US-Iran-Israel issues? How significant is Russia’s role there?
FL: You know, when I hear about Russia mediating between Bashar al-Assad and others, Iran and others, I’m a bit confused. Just a few days ago, Lavrov said we cannot force Assad to resign. He is right: we cannot. It’s exactly the same with the Iranians. We should not overestimate Russian influence here. It is not the case that Russia has consistently voted against sanctions on Iran. In fact, Russia voted in favour each time — admittedly after a long discussion, after a long struggle, but still. Of course, I’m afraid that because of Libya, Russia might be much less cooperative over Iran in the future. But the much bigger question is what the Americans might do in the next administration, because Iran now is eager again to play this game about negotiations, about striking a deal directly with them. Of course they believe that the only actor of significance is the United States. So I wouldn’t overestimate Russia’s role in this at all
MM: I would also emphasise the complex situation inside Iran. It’s certainly not a monolithic ruling elite —
FL: Certainly not. They have elections next year, and with these Ahmadinejad will disappear.
MM: Iran is very clearly connected to the question of Syria, though. The two have close relations. Both are considered regimes that do not work in the interests of their own societies,nor in the interests of peace and security in the region.
And also you have the China factor. China has always been supportive of both regimes; indeed China and Russia have almost always adopted the same position in UN Security Council votes. Not long ago, the new UN envoy for Syria, Brahimi, had talks with the Chinese leaders about Syria. I’d be very curious to have your opinion on the role of the China-Russia tandem, and whether you think China, which seems to have been protecting itself behind Russia’s back, whether China might be coming forward a little more now. Is it just a diplomatic courtesy to Mr Brahimi?
FL: No, China will not come forward in the Middle East. It’s simply not in their interest. There is an informal agreement between China and Russia to vote in solidarity at the UN Security Council. When Russia voted for sanctions against Iran, China did the same. When Russia abstained in Libya, China did the same. When Russia was opposing on Syria, China did the same. I think that the Chinese, basically, are against intervention. For them, this is the principle: no one has the right to intervene anywhere.
By the way, there is a heated debate in China about this. Conservative forces and the military guys are saying that it is now time for China to play its own game. And they use this Libyan precedent as an example: they see how Russia, for non-transparent reasons, decided not to veto and they ask why they didn’t use the veto themselves, because their interests in Libya were so much bigger than Russia’s.
What concerns me in this regard is not the Middle East, but what happens in the future. It isn’t inconceivable that we could come to a situation in five years time, in ten years time, perhaps even earlier, when the UN Security Council will be forced to deal with some issue connected with East Asia, South East Asia, Korea and so on. Here, Russian and Chinese interests do not fully coincide, to put it mildly. Sometimes they are contradictory, sometimes they are just different. The Chinese may well feel within their rights to say: “Sorry we supported you on the Middle East many times, sometimes against our own interests, and now it’s your turn.’
MM: So the Chinese feel they are doing the Russians a favour?
FL: I think they have that in mind. Of course, is a matter of interpretation. You can always say after the event that you did things as a favour. Maybe they take their positions now without much hesitation, but have good reason to expect Russia to reciprocate, to endorse Chinese positions in areas that China feels it has significant interests. I don’t know what kind of case could be brought up in the UN Security Council: Taiwan, probably not; perhaps North Korea. There is a risk that China will ask Russia to vote with them, regardless of what Russia would like to do.
MM: If what you say is right, Fyodor, Russia’s policy is does not appear to be very convincing. From our point of view, Russia’s stubborn position on supporting Syria, on supporting Iran has cost Russia something politically, in terms of image and partnership with a number of countries. And what you are saying is that all this will mean that Russia will become a hostage to ‘counter-gifts’ to China in five or ten years time —
FL: One remark: Russia does not vote because of China; Russia votes because of its own position. How China might try to use the situation — that’s another story. I’m not sure that Russia will necessarily follow this logic, but there is a risk, just a risk —
MM: The question, then, is really what is the political, economic, maybe strategic cost to Russia in the years to come? What will Russia have lost in this succession of crises in the Middle East?
FL: The question is: who will have lost more? We might have different views on the Russian position, but its one advantage is that, in any emergency, Russia can simply withdraw from the Middle East and forget about it. Now, there is one particular aspect of the Middle Eastern situation which is very significant in the mid-to long-term perspective, and that is the possibility of a serious rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Such a turn of events will have an impact on all respective Russian territories, the Northern Caucasus in particular. But, politically, geopolitically, Russia could just abandon this area. The Americans can’t, the Europeans can’t. When you ask who will lose more, you have to ask what is it are you actually losing…
MM: But that would mean that Putin’s protectionist vision of the world is still dominant.
FL: Yes, absolutely. Putin is very afraid of international development. He tries to be cautious: inaction is better than action. And unfortunately, sometimes that is the case.
OC: Thinking about the decision-making process for a second. You just mentioned that one man, Putin, has a policy of non-intervention. What about the other elements within the Kremlin kitchen? Are arms contractors important? How important is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Are energy interests playing a role?
FL: Russian foreign policy is determined by one particular person, and we all know who he is. There is not a dictatorship in Russia, but there is a semi-authoritarian regime, and owing to several factors, Putin’s role in this regime is absolutely crucial. He is a balancer-in-chief. He is the only guy who is able to combine all the competing interests. Everything that happens is a projection of his ideas.
In terms of who can influence foreign policy making, the foreign minister is now a much more significant player than he ever used to be. Again, this is due to personal factors. Sergei Lavrov is maybe the first foreign minister since Primakov who is really a political figure, and not just a technical implementer. This is due to his experience, his knowledge and his skills. As for understanding which lobbies are more able to influence decisions — defence, oil and gas and so on — it’s very difficult to say. I wouldn’t exaggerate the impact of, for example, the defence industry. Sure, it was initially a factor in Syria, but it ceased to be a factor very early. Sometimes these interests try to play their own games, but mostly they are unsuccessful.
MM: What about the intelligence services? They have been working, rather productively, in Iran, in Syria. Don’t you think they have a great influence on the way the situation is analysed within Moscow, within the Kremlin, within the Foreign Ministry?
FL: Maybe. In the Kremlin this could be a factor, owing to Putin’s inbuilt trust of the security services. I don’t know. I can’t assess this aspect accurately. As for oil and gas, of course this is very important, but mostly in relation to the European Union, because the EU is now the biggest client. It seems that now, for example, and quite recently, Putin and the whole Gazprom branch of government have started to really worry about changes in the European market. Indeed, Putin has spoken openly about this. Prior to this, Gazprom used to just reject all suggestions that shale gas and other developments could change the market situation. Now they are beginning to understand the reality.
MM: Would you say that it started to hit them sometime last summer?
FL: Perhaps as late as this year, when they faced a very coordinated attack on energy, both from the European commission and all major European countries. Initially, they believed they could counteract such pressure as they had before, but then they understood that the challenge was too serious and they needed to change. They understood that it would be impossible to kill off the EU’s ‘Third Package’ and to somehow keep the old system. As I understand it, Gazprom is now working on ways to restructure and find legal solutions to its problems. A few days ago, they worked out a compromise with Poland on gas prices, for example.
The most interesting thing about the energy lobby is what their position on Asia will be. Even those who are very much in favour of good European relations are puzzled by the lack of engagement with Asia. In the 21st century, when Asia is rising and is fast becoming the world’s biggest economic actor, the Russian presence in the energy sector there is practically non-existent, almost zero. Of course, it’s all a legacy of the Soviet Union —
MM: It’s still very much an East-West thing
FL: Yes, absolutely. It’s the old Soviet thinking. We still live in the Brezhnev era, actually. Brezhnev laid the gas pipelines, and they define geopolitics today. But I think that from now on much attention will be paid to Asia. Finally, the administration has started to ask specialists what can be done and so on. Of course, it’s a very long-term process. If we even start this process now, it will take years, if not decades to turn around.
OC: One very obvious way in which domestic policy has an impact on the international remit is the case of economic stagnation at home. Talk of Medvedev’s modernisation has definitely died down, but nothing seems to be in its place. Do you see any hope that Russia will be able to regain its position on the international arena through a new, modernising strategy?
FL: Well, Medvedev’s modernisation was great, but unfortunately never happened. In a way, it was a destructive process, because Medvedev managed to destroy the notion of modernisation in the same way that communism, socialism and democracy have all been undermined in the past in Russia
MM: And the ‘bright future’ too
FL: We certainly don’t hear about modernisation since Medvedev left office. Perhaps Putin is allergic to the word.
MM: The problem is that he also allergic to the word ‘reform’
FL: Putin is obsessed with the idea of stability, and there are many reasons for this. One is certainly that that this generation of Russian politicians and administrators are really afraid of repeating the pattern of Gorbachev. They remember how well it started — all the fantastic ideas and the good intentions — and how quickly it turned to ruins. This is psychological, it is important. Secondly, Putin really believes that we are living in an environment, both domestically and internationally, where any move might lead to a worsening of the situation. So the risk is too high.
MM: They take no risk.
FL: They take no risk. They try to avoid risks. Only in real emergency do they take risks. This is the difference between Putin’s stability in 2000 and Putin’s stability today. Stability in 2000, in fact, represented action. You might have different views on what he did, but he was undeniably active in establishing a new model for Russia, in repairing the state after the 1990s, in implementing governance mechanisms and so on. That was a stability that meant some activity, some doing. Today stability is self-preservation. Non-doing. A ‘do not touch’ mentality.
MM: So taking no risk in the very short term, but probably taking very big risks in the longer term
FL: Yes, it might be a very big risk in the longer term, but psychologically Putin prefers to postpone decisions. All the people who know him, who work with him say he is a guy who prefers to postpone everything. As long as it is possible not to take decisions, he will not take them —
OC: Has that always been the case? Was that the case at the beginning of his time in office?
FL: It was the case, but it was much less vocal. Putin is very much against revolutions; he is a traditional conservative. He prefers to move gradually. Even the radical things he did at the start of the 2000s, he did with enormous pauses. He didn’t reshuffle everything at once. It took him four or five years to establish the model he wanted to establish. And now it’s the opposite situation: he prefers not to do anything. But I think he understands that this cannot last forever
MM: It certainly weakens his position and his image. A leader who is afraid of acting —
FL: Putin is not perceived this way in Russia yet. That was a big illusion last year, when people in the West hoped that these protests would become something like the Arab Spring. But no, he played this game very well. And he won —
MM: You would say he won?
MM: That today, everything is secure?
FL: The wave of protest movement is over. And I’m afraid everything the opposition does is just strengthening Putin’s position. I know a lot of people who were initially enthusiastic about the process, but now they say: ‘oh no, anything but these guys.’
MM: At the beginning of our conversation, Fyodor, you put quite a lot of emphasis on the domestic considerations of foreign policy. You also mentioned several times that Putin is afraid of interference, afraid of taking risks. Would you say that in 2004, the Orange Revolution changed his world view, and he became threatened, afraid of a repeat of the Orange Revolution in Russia? Was it a major turning point in the way he viewed ‘the in-between countries’, what Russians sometimes call ‘the near abroad’?
FL: It was a very important point. I wouldn’t say that it changed Putin’s mind about the neighbouring countries. It certainly changed his opinion about the United States. Putin’s very deep anti-Americanism is attributable to those events. And not his KGB legacy and not his Soviet past. He felt his deep disappointment in George Bush, because he believed he did very good things for the Americans in 2001 and 2002 with Afghanistan, Central Asia and so on. Yet he got this in return.
MM: You really think he has this reading of the Orange Revolution? That it happened as a result of American, hostile support?
FL: Sure, absolutely.
MM: He doesn’t for one second believe that many Ukrainians wanted a less corrupt, and more democratic country?
FL: We don’t need to portray him as a completely stupid guy. Of course he understands that. He knows Mr Kuchma and others very well. He understands how many Ukrainians, many Russians, or many others could have been dissatisfied by the situation. But for him, this public discontent was immediately used by outside forces to fuel and to undermine —
MM: So he easily forgets about the discontent, which was genuine, and he remembers only the support for the discontented?
FL: The support is more important for him. It is a very big factor. After 2004, the Russian authorities took a couple of steps. They studied the Orange Revolution very carefully. They identified all the factors that helped the opposition to prevail: the independent TV channels, the foreign NGOs, or Ukrainian NGOs with foreign funding, the party system and so on. And then between 2005 and early 2006, legislation was changed so to avoid a repeat in Russia. Today, we are seeing the next wave, with this new legislation. As far as my own personal view is concerned … I can’t remember who said it, Marx or Hegel, but history repeats twice, once as a tragedy, the second as a farce. Now it’s a farce, because all these laws, well, they will not work.
OC: The Ministry of Justice isn’t even sure what to do themselves —
FL: No. First they adopted the laws, and now they don’t know how to apply them.
MM: If I may, I wanted to move on to perhaps one of our final themes. Fyodor, you wrote several times during recent months that you think Europe needs Russia as much as Russia needs Europe. You do not envisage Russia without Europe, and you believe that we in Europe cannot really envisage our future without a very close and good relationship with Russia. This is all very well, but you rarely mention those countries between, that is those countries that are not members of the European Union, that are not members of NATO, and that no longer belong to a close alliance with Russia: namely Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, countries who are now in the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme.
I wanted to ask you why you don’t mention these countries much. Is it because it’s difficult to know what will happen there? Do you not think the problem might be that Russia tries to keep those countries outside the European, Western sphere of influence, yet knows they will never be back in a Russian sphere of influence? In other words, the status quo might be quite unstable in the years to come. Do you avoid talking about those countries because you don’t see how Moscow can build a positive policy toward them? Because I see them as bridges, as necessary bridges between Russia and Europe. That is, I don’t see how Russia and Europe can come closer together, more productively, if we don’t take first into consideration future of those countries. Do you agree with me?
FL: I disagree with the sequence. As a strategic issue, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’m absolutely convinced that if and when Russia and Europe find a workable model for co-operation, rapproachment, and some form of integration, then all problems with those countries will be solved automatically. The problems they have simply are just due to Russia and Europe being apart. As of today, Russia will try to minimise European presence in the Western part of the CIS. Of course, the presence now is almost invisible, beacuse we see that the European Union does not have the capacity to play a big role here any more.
What is more, I don’t believe that Russia needs these countries so critically any more. This is the beginning of another very long discussion, but my feeling is that the Russian internal perception of its role in world affairs is starting to change. The post-Imperial phrase is with us. The first phase took roughly 20 years, when the feeling was that we should get back, we should demonstrate that Russia is still important, still matters, and by default that we should try to keep the Soviet sphere of influence. Now we are entering the next stage.
Coming back to your question, really I believe that whatever we disagree about today with Europe, Russia is a European country, Russia cannot be anything but that. Even if many people want it to be Asian —
MM: But it has to accept that Ukraine is also European, then.
FL: Again, no one questions that. If Russia can find a stable and forward-looking cooperation with the European Union, or with Europe – I don’t know which form Europe will take in 10 years or 15 years — there will be no problem for Belarus, Ukraine or Moldova and others to be part of this system. If that does not happen, then we will continue to fight. Or, if not fight, then to work against each other.
OC: To finish by completing that picture: in fifteen to twenty years time, where do you think Russia will be? Will it still be a significant global power? Where will the fundamentals of Russian power be: the buffer zones, the spoiling attitude, nuclear arms, energy? Are those going to play the same kind of roles as they do now?
FL: You know, I reject any attempt to picture the world in twenty-five years time. I don’t believe we will recognise it at all. At all. Since 1980s, not one major change has been predicted. Not the Arab spring, not the collapse of the Communist system in Europe, not the rise of China. So it is absolutely senseless. To conclude where we started: Putin is as he is because he does not believe in strategies, because he is convinced that any strategies are senseless. That they will fail. OK, so the Americans planned a lot of things, but look at what they achieved!
MM: He doesn’t believe in the future, that’s the disturbing thing.
FL: He does believe in the future, but let’s say he doesn’t know what it looks like.
Recorded November 2012