An interview with Włodzimierz Marciniak by Filip Memches
The events in Ukraine are just an excuse for Russia’s confrontation with the West. The Kremlin adopted an insular model of Russia, threatened by enemies lurking around it—says prof. Włodzimierz Marciniak in conversation with Filip Memches.
A well-known political scientist Sergei Karaganov said some time ago that in its policy towards Ukraine, starting from the annexation of the Crimea, Russia was acting pre-emptively. In his view, the possible expansion of the European Union and NATO to the East would be a threat to Moscow.
What Karaganov says is a pretty trashy propaganda. It contains the claim that there are some non-negotiable Russian interests which the Kremlin simply must defend and that Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West violates these interests. In fact, before the West started to formulate any proposals for Ukraine, Russia was offered the reset. The concept of the reset stemmed from what I call the Vienna sentiment of Western countries, finding its fullest implementation in the Congress of Vienna and the Yalta Conference. And in a “Viennese” Europe has Russia always felt good, it was valued or even overvalued compared to its real potential. Since late 18th century Russia always achieved its maximum potential when working with some Western power, beginning with the alliance with England against France. In contrast, whenever it tried to conduct an independent policy, it lost. The Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War could serve as examples. So why did Russia act against the Viennese sentiment, which is generally beneficial to it?
Perhaps it is because the Kremlin concluded that the weakness of the West offered a chance for rebuilding the Empire. And this may be accompanied by a certain psychological problem, namely that Russians—including the Russian political elite—are unable to treat the former Soviet republics, and especially Ukraine and Belarus, as separate sovereign political entities, but they keep perceiving them as inalienable parts of their empire.
The events in Ukraine were just an excuse for rejecting the reset and adopting an insular model of Russia, threatened by enemies lurking around it. Ukraine proved to be the right area for a maneuver consisting of a confrontation opposing Russia to the West.
But why? Did Moscow not get as much as it wanted?
Generally speaking, the reset was about Russian and American cooperation on certain issues in Asia, including the Middle East. Perhaps there was also an implicit intent to jointly oppose China in exchange for an American withdrawal from active policy in Central and Eastern Europe. So Russia did get what it wanted. The aggression in Ukraine achieves something completely opposite. Russians are bending over backwards to turn Americans into their enemy, all this in spite of certain resistance in Washington, which does not want to assume that role, but it probably has no other choice.
What was the crucial moment?
I don’t know if there was a specific decision to reject the reset. Perhaps it was a process extended in time. We can go back to the 9/11 attacks and recall Putin’s momentary opening to cooperation with George W. Bush. There were talks about forming an anti-terrorist coalition and to some extent this coalition did function in the context of Afghanistan. But later Russians started to withdraw from that. The reason, I suppose, was that an anti-terrorist coalition would have to be anti-Islamic. And Putin did not want to break his tactical alliance with the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Because he saw his interest in stabilizing the situation in the Caucasus.
And destabilizing the situation in Ukraine?
This is something we should analyze in more depth. Russians aimed at having some agent in Ukraine through whom they could influence the policy of Kyiv. But the period of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency showed that this politician was guided by his own selfish goals rather than Moscow’s interests. This politician pursued a policy of closer relations with the EU. Ukraine undertook a series of legal reforms, preparing it for signing the Association Agreement. So counting on a pro-Russian force in Kyiv was becoming more and more illusory. Russians concluded, therefore, that the only way to influence Ukraine was by using a territorial rather than structural factor. This is confirmed by the further course of events. The apparatchiks of the Party of the Regions did not take part in the separatist rebellion in the Crimea and other areas.
In this situation, Russians had to rely on criminals or, more broadly, social outcasts who had not participated in the Ukrainian political life. In Donbas there was a repeat of the Bolshevik revolution…
This analogy is perfectly legitimate. A few years ago in the military base Kushchovskaya in the Krasnodar region 12 people, including four children, were brutally murdered in the context of feuds between organized crime groups. Charged with this crime was a gang headed by a man called Sergei Tsapok—a doctor of sociology at the University of Rostov-on-Don. And then, a political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov wrote an article in which he claimed that Russia was a pyramid of such Tsapoks: that on each level the country was ruled by a Tsapok, and that at the very top there was the Tsapok of all Tsapoks, that is the boss of all bosses. So using people from this grey area—like in the Donbas—does not present any problem for the Kremlin. However, it is a fundamental problem for Russia, which needs a legal institutional order, and the revolution in the Donbas with its worship of naked force can pose a threat for the middle-class aspirations of Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Did the West make any mistakes in its policy towards Russia? Could the crisis have been avoided?
I am afraid that the answer is no. I don’t know if “mistake” is the right word, for these are quite deliberate actions. It seems to me that the West is deeply familiar with Russian complexes and is exploiting them for its own purposes.
Putin initially felt very insecure in the Western corridors of power. But over time his confidence started to grow. He has begun to believe that he was fooling Western politicians and they pretended it was like that to make him happy, for they thought that his satisfaction about being treated in such a way could be exploited. Let us ask ourselves one question: what is Russia now? It is a resource base and an operator of nuclear weapons. Therefore Russians have to be made to feel happy so that they would not get upset. However the reality is that from Western perspective Russia is a weak participant of the global economic exchange, who is behaving narcissistically, and so it becomes euphoric when it is praised and admired. Such an attitude exploded in 2014 after the annexation of the Crimea. Speaking to an average Russian was shocking then, for they would claim that they were living in the most wonderful and richest country in the world.
Is this Western playing on Russian complexes still going on despite not having produced the expected results? Angela Merkel and François Hollande, despite the—mildly speaking— adventurous policy of the Kremlin towards Ukraine, were trying to placate Putin.
Such an approach is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Western partners, especially Germans, offered various face-saving escapes to Putin, although it was clear that he did not want to use them. And of course after the second Minsk agreement Merkel is doomed to further talks with Putin, but that just means that she will have to keep covering for him. This agreement exists only on paper, it is not permanent.
We know that in early March 2014 (that is before the annexation of the Crimea) there was a long phone conversation between Obama and Putin. We know from official reports that they talked about the Russian demand for incorporating the Crimean Peninsula in some form. But when this conversation took place, the referendum question formulated in the resolution of the local authorities in the Crimea went roughly like that: Are you for the restoring of the status of a sovereign state to Crimea, which as an agent under international law would voluntarily become part of Ukraine? So what Russia wanted was that Crimea would be independent from Kyiv in practice, but at the same time, formally remaining part of Ukraine, thus it could influence its policy, for example through electing deputies to the Supreme Council or blocking parliamentary bills.
So what the Kremlin wanted for the Crimea then was the solution which it demanded a year later in Minsk in relation to the Donetsk and Luhansk districts?
Yes, such was the purpose of Moscow, for—as I said—in Ukraine there is no longer any party on which Russians could count. But Obama refused. Russians therefore decided on the annexation of the Crimea, which turned out to be a fiasco for them, for when they took over the peninsula, they could no longer use it to destabilize Ukraine. And this failure had to be overshadowed by something else. The “New Russia” project was that something.
So what was the purpose of the Crimea annexation?
After Obama’s refusal there was no other choice, the Kremlin could not back off, it was necessary to take a further step. In the light of Putin’s story presented in the film The Crimea: the Road to the Fatherland, namely that on the night of February 22 2014 he made the decision about the peninsula’s “return” to Russia, has to be seen as an attempt at building a cult of the leader.
Are we witnessing the birth of such a cult?
Please note the story of Putin’s disappearance in March this year. Instead of analyzing the political reasons for the public absence of the Russian president—for example the fact that the summit of the Eurasian Union was cancelled—the media took up motifs characteristic for the process of mythologizing. First, the leader should be healthy as an ox, and there had been rumors about Putin’s health. Second, the leader has a new wife and he sent the old one to a monastery. And there was no shortage of rumors that Lyudmila Putin had been expedited to a monastery, while the President secretly married Alina Kabaeva. Third, there was a rumor that Kabaeva gave birth to Putin’s son in Switzerland. So the leader’s successor appeared. Fourth, there was some talk about a palace conspiracy. Fifth, there was talk about unclear identity of the leader. Legends had been circulating for a long time that Putin had been born in some exotic place, for example in Ashgabat. Or that he had been dead for some time, and the current head of state was his double. On the internet you can easily find materials saying that Putin’s grandfather Spiridon was strikingly similar to some Jewish revolutionary from Vitebsk.
But this similarity of Putin’s grandfather to a Jewish revolutionary probably does not enhance Putin’s standing in the eyes of Russians…
It depends, for the mythologizing process is never straightforward. It can endow an individual with both positive and negative features. The material we are talking about can be also found on the website of the Communist Party supporters. And there is one more twist to this story. In 1937, a rumor emerged that Stalin had disappeared, probably because a new wife was giving birth to his son. Could there be another reason for the leader’s disappearance? He must have a successor after all.
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