Putin Cannot Sleep Peacefully

An interview with Andrei Piontkovsky by Filip Memches

To retain power, the Russian president needs the loyalty of the elites. However, this loyalty is not certain today—says Andrei Piontkovsky in an interview with Filip Memches.

The annexation of the Crimea significantly increased the support of the Russian society for Vladimir Putin. The Russian opposition is virtually helpless. Does this mean that the Russian president can sleep peacefully today?

No. TV propaganda presented the annexation of the Crimea as a huge geopolitical success, but when war begins, the Russians always receive it with enthusiasm. We recently celebrated the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. In 1914, a huge crowd fell on their knees before the tsar, who came to the balcony of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Three years later, Nicholas II was deposed. The 85-percent support for Putin will also not last long. The war in Ukraine produces many problems, including economic ones, some of them a consequence of the sanctions imposed by the West.

In 1917 Russia there were significant revolutionary forces, while today they are probably absent.

Indeed, opposition parties have been pacified, but this is not the main thing. In a war situation, social attitudes are changing rapidly. For this reason precisely has Putin decided on a truce. Russia had been suffering heavy losses in Ukraine, and the authorities had been trying to hide this from the public, but this was no longer possible. There were funerals of Russian soldiers, people started to learn about casualties from the Internet. Hence the authorities started speaking about alleged volunteers. Whenever more coffins with dead soldiers come in, public support for military operations decreases.

What can it lead to?

The anti-war sentiment among the public could spread onto the establishment and ultimately lead the elites to overthrow Putin. We live in an authoritarian regime. Under such a regime the leaders do not go away as a result of democratic rivalry. Indeed, formal democratic mechanisms do exist in Russia—there are even elections—but they are the same sham as they were in the USSR. Dictators are brought down as a result of a palace conspiracy. To retain power, Putin needs the loyalty of the elites. However, this loyalty is not certain now. It is no secret that many among the president’s entourage (both officials and oligarchs) have suffered heavy losses because of Western sanctions. The value of assets possessed by these billionaires suddenly plummeted. And these are people accustomed to prolonged stays in the West. They have their houses there, their wives and children live in them. And now they are wondering why they should lose all this on account of the ambitions of one man.

For now, however, these are only speculations…

Not necessarily. These people articulate their grudges, admittedly within the limits of loyalty, in the press. You can name here a text by Sergei Karaganov. The author, regarded as an establishment liberal, delivers his view in a subservient form. He addresses the president as a genius of politics. He praises him for the victory that he assesses the annexation of the Crimea to be. And he encourages Putin to fight for yet another victory—so that Russia would not be entrapped by the West in the war against Ukraine. This is the only way to formulate such a concept. But the idea is clear. A significant part of the elite does not want a Russian-Ukrainian war because it does not want Western sanctions.

And another part is in favour of this war?

Putin unleashed a chauvinist hysteria and may fall victim to it. People from the military and security services, siloviki, have already started accusing him of not being tough enough. For some time he proposed the New Russia project. This entity would contain eight districts from the southern and eastern part of Ukraine. But it turned out that in six of them the idea of the “Russian world”—the integration of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine based on the community of language, culture, religion and history—promoted by the Kremlin does not find support. Instead of the New Russia there is a small stub composed of truncated Lugansk and Donetsk circuits, called Lugandon. For some people the Minsk agreement with Poroshenko amounts to treason on the part of Putin. So we have two informal oppositions against the president within the regime: the doves from among the establishment liberals and oligarchs, and the hawks from among the siloviki. This of course does not mean that Putin will be soon overthrown. However, the more trouble Russia has in connection with the crisis in Ukraine, the bigger the dissatisfaction with Kremlin’s policy will be.

This would mean that the enthusiasm for the annexation of the Crimea and satisfying imperial appetites do not go hand in hand with enthusiasm for bloodshed. Russians perhaps yearn for the empire, but they do not want to pay for the return of the empire with a war, killing Russian soldiers.

The price of human life in Russia is lower than in Europe, but still the Soviet Union is gone. The overwhelming majority of Russians do not want to die for the Donbas. The idea of the “Russian world” is doomed to failure. On the territory defined by the Kremlin as New Russia there is no support for the separatists. For the Kremlin to succeed, the regime would have to decide on a great occupation of southern and eastern regions of Ukraine.

However, the doves and hawks are fighting among themselves for influence on Putin, for supremacy within the political elite…

Correct. We are dealing with a struggle of bulldogs under the carpet. I already recalled Karaganov’s text. On the opposite side of the barricade there are columnists such as Alexander Prokhanov or Alexander Dugin. While Karaganov represents the “party of peace,” they express the position of the “party of war.”You can also mention Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, one of the leaders of the Donetsk separatists. “Strelkov” sharply criticizes the Minsk agreement between Putin and Poroshenko; although he claims he is not attacking the Russian president, only the traitors around him. Putin cannot satisfy neither the hawks nor the doves. He must balance their influence, and thus he is not going forward.

Why? While Karaganov is a representative of the political establishment, Prokhanov or Dugin do not belong to the Kremlin elite.

Are you sure? Over the past few months I have not seen Karaganov on Russian television, while Prokhanov and Dugin appear in it almost every day. Your point of view is no longer valid. “The party of war” hugely gained in significance.

So Siloviki have gained a significant advantage over the liberals, who at the beginning of Medvedev’s presidency were predicted to come into the fore…

Dividing the Kremlin elite into siloviki and liberals was always a simplification. The camp of those dissatisfied with the economic consequences of Putin’s policy is rife with siloviki. They are also billionaires. Then this community also includes people who are ideologically motivated—they are genuinely in favour of the concept of the “Russian world” and this is why they are opting for escalating the war. Even Medvedev is using chauvinist rhetoric now. For what until recently was only the fringes, that is the views of Prokhanov or Dugin, is now in the mainstream. Prokhanov is the leader of the Izborsk Club, which co-operates with Putin’s aid Sergei Glazev. He proposed to the president that in the light of the Western sanctions Russia should disconnect its banking system from the international SWIFT network. Putin has rejected this idea for now. He maintains a confrontational, anti-Western stance, but he does not want to sever the economic relations with the West.

You get the impression that Putin is the winner of this confrontation. He is laughing away the sanctions imposed on Russia—as if he believed that the West is incapable of effectively counteracting the Kremlin.

The sanctions which have already been introduced are effective. They are the reason Putin is satisfied with Lugandon. Take a look at the situation on the global markets, how the value of the ruble has fallen against the dollar and the euro. In Moscow prices went up by 15–20%. And this is the result of just the weak first wave of sanctions. If the West shows determination, then such steps as disconnecting the Russian banking system from the SWIFT or limiting imports of raw materials will bring the Russian economy to its knees. For the last two years it was mired in stagnation even without any sanctions.

This brings us to another matter—Western countries do not have a unified Russian policy. The USA take one course, Germany takes another course and such countries as Slovakia or Hungary take yet another course.

America does not have such close economic relations with Russia as Germany, so for Washington the sanctions do not constitute such an economic problem as they do for Germany. Introducing the existing sanctions, Germany has already gone quite far. Cutting off Russian banking or energy sector from Western loans is a major blow for the economy. If Putin successfully implemented the idea of the “Russian world” in Ukraine, his next targets would be other countries with a Russian minority—not only Belarus and Kazakhstan, but also such NATO countries as Estonia and Latvia. European countries, however, are not worried about these threats as much as about their own economic losses.

What are the reasons for such radicalisation of the political discourse in Russia?

It has not happened suddenly. Anti-American propaganda has always been there. As has juxtaposing Russia to the West. It did not appear under Putin’s presidency. We are dealing here with hangovers which are plaguing the whole political elite in Russia. They stem from the defeat in the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the loss of the Empire. Now we are only observing their exacerbation. They have assumed a clinical form. This is Putin’s work, because he got very scared of the spectre of the Maidan in Moscow, which would mean losing power for him. The experience of the Arab revolutions had a heavy impact on him. Putin saw what happened to Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. His aim now is staying in power until the end of his life. This is why he decided to stop Ukrainian revolution in its tracks.

You said in the beginning of our conversation that in terms of mentality Russians and Ukrainians are similar to each other. Yet admittedly the political systems in Russia and Ukraine are significantly different. While in Russia we have a soft authoritarianism clad in democratic procedures, in Ukraine we have a plurality of political clans which is closer to real democracy.

This is true. Ukrainian society is politically more developed than Russian society. In Ukraine, as opposed to Russia, there have been presidential elections the result of which you could not predict. In terms of economic systems the power in both countries held by cleptocracy, that is oligarchs. And who are they? Yes, they are very rich people, but not only that. The oligarchic system means merging power and money. An oligarch multiplies his fortune, because he is close to the ruling circles. This was the case of Viktor Yanukovych, who in 2010–2014 incredibly enriched himself and his family. In this sense, Ukraine taking the European course and adopting European standards meant attacking the oligarchic system. And this was also what Putin feared. He started the war with Ukraine, because such viruses as the Maidan revolution and selecting the European development path by Kiev could turn out to be contagious and reach Russia.

How does this situation translate into Russia’s relations with Belarus and Kazakhstan, that are the countries with which it builds the Eurasian community?

These relationships have soured. Putin was angry during the negotiations with Poroshenko in Minsk, because Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev did not support him. They behaved like conciliators and mediators. This is why Putin later spoke about Kazakhstan with contempt—he said that there had never been a statehood there. In turn, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and other Russian politicians began to remind people that a lot of Russians live in the north of Kazakhstan. So Nazarbayev has a cause for concern— the idea of the “Russian world” could in fact be a pretext for uniting the north of Kazakhstan with Russia. And as far as Belarus is concerned, the Kremlin has been trying to swallow this state for 20 years. Lukashenko is effectively opposing that.

What remains for Russia then is to seek allies in other parts of the word—especially among the BICS. This year there was much talk about an agreement on economic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

Russia cannot be an ally of China. It may only be its vassal. People in the Kremlin probably even realize that and yet they are going that way. One must add to that the Chinese demographic invasion of the Siberia and the Far West and the historically grounded territorial claims against Russia. This is a very dangerous policy that will end, first de facto and then de jure, in annexing the Far East and a significant part of Siberia to China.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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