Moscow Perceives Fear as a Political Instrument

When Vladimir Putin decided to annex Crimea, the question in Poland and the West was, “Where will Russia stop? What will be its next territorial demands?” Both then and today my answer is the same: “It will stop where it is stopped,” says Professor Adam Daniel Rotfeld, former Polish Foreign Minister, in an interview with Małgorzata Nocuń.

Małgorzata Nocuń: Central and Eastern Europe is a difficult neighbourhood for the European Union, isn’t it?

Adam Daniel Rotfeld: I understand that you don’t mean all the countries bordering Russia in this region, but rather those countries of Central and Eastern Europe which joined the European Union nearly twenty years ago and are now an integral part of it. The roots of liberal democracy in this part of Europe – with the exception of the Czech Republic – are extremely shallow. 

Let’s start with Poland. In 1989, after the fall of communism, the West began to perceive our country as a fully democratic part of the European community. At first, political transition was supported as part of the preparations for accession and then, in 2004, Poland was accepted into the European Union. This decision was based on the assumption that we had chosen the path of democratic development and that we would keep following this path. Moreover, to emphasize that we were part of the European family, equals among equals, Jerzy Buzek was appointed President of the European Parliament, and a few years later Donald Tusk became President of the European Council. A decade earlier, the writer Stanislaw Lem, observing the democratic changes in Poland, remained sceptical and prophesied: “The West will yet see that we have managed to deceive them and will be bitterly disappointed in us.” 

Lem was a perspicacious futurologist characterized by extremely deep analytical thinking. He knew that the sentiments and expectations of the liberal-democratic elite sharply contrasted with the sentiments of a considerable part of the inhabitants of provincial Poland. People were not prepared to bear such high costs of transformation. These groups became fertile soil for the formation of anti-democratic and populist attitudes, often characterized by xenophobia and nationalism. Lem predicted that things would take a bad turn in Poland. And so it happened—his prophecy came true before our very eyes. To an even greater extent, the tendencies of “corrupting democracy” concern other countries in the region: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria. 

Democracy is based on values, rule of law and procedures, and the creation of strong institutions to guard them. Unfortunately, this has not happened in Poland and other CEE countries.

Also in the Baltic countries democracy is a process in its early stages. Before World War II, authoritarian tendencies and Fascist movements dominated in these countries. The Soviet period strengthened the prevailing conviction that a strong state must be based on authoritarian, single-party and oligarchic rule. To this day, the influence of Moscow and multifaceted connections of various groups with the Russian authorities persist there. Let us add that these former Soviet republics are inhabited by a large Russian minority, particularly numerous in Latvia. The fears that a dangerous choice of ‘illiberal democracy’, as happened in Hungary, may prevail in the societies and political elites there are not unfounded. This may lead – in a historically conceivable time – to the transformation of these democratic states into ‘Russian protectorates’ of a sort. 

In most of the post-Soviet countries we observe the consolidation of authoritarian tendencies. This is the case in the countries of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and especially Belarus. After the rigged presidential elections (in August 2020), Lukashenko launched a repression campaign on an unprecedented scale. Today’s Belarus is a country where human rights and freedom of speech are virtually non-existent. People are tortured in overcrowded prisons. 

The opposition that erupted in Minsk and other Belarusian cities after the rigged presidential election was peaceful. Lukashenko realized that he had lost not only broad public support but even his ‘rock-solid’ electorate. This was no longer the Belarus that had elected him President in a fair election in 1994. 

During the last elections, young Belarusians opted for fundamental changes. The dictator could have stepped down without bloodshed when faced with the wrath of crowds dominated by younger generations. The Belarusian usurper might have done so if he had not received support from the Kremlin. A serious mistake was made in Russia in the fall of 2020. The Kremlin should not have sided with the dictator but allowed a peaceful transition.

Moscow had a chance to maintain good neighborly relations with Belarus; there is not and never has been any Russophobia there.

The Russian language is widely spoken, on a par with Belarusian, and Russian culture enjoys genuine respect. The society was and certainly still is positively disposed towards Russia. Moscow could have taken advantage of this and dealt with Belarus the way it defined its policy toward Finland after World War II. Finland deliberately chose a policy of self-restraint in its relations with Russia. It did not take steps to integrate into Western structures and did not join NATO. This policy earned the name of ‘Finlandization’. The answer to the question as to why Russia did not adopt a similar strategy towards Belarus is quite simple. If the scenario of a peaceful internal transition had succeeded in Belarus, many Russians would have asked themselves, “Why are changes possible in Belarus and not here?” It was therefore decided to support the dictator, although the Kremlin elites treat him with undisguised and critical reserve. 

By bloodily suppressing the demonstrations, Lukashenko found himself in a dead-end situation. He now has no other choice but to accept Moscow’s ‘help’ and protectorate. This actually means the de facto abolition of Belarusian sovereignty. 

Lukashenko, as a former director of a sovkhoz, manages Belarus like one. He failed to notice that times had changed. During his rule, over 25 years long now, a new generation has grown up in Belarus. They no longer speak the language of Soviet nomenclature, which the Belarusian satrap still uses. They don’t feel at home in the uncritical personal worship characteristic of the Soviet times and don’t even understand Lukashenko’s jokes. 

Lukashenko has been recognized by Moscow as the rightful ruler of Belarus, but his relations with Putin are not at all smooth. Their talks, which last for hours, are harsh and far from the language of diplomacy. A dozen years ago, in the context of a debate about the Union State of Belarus and Russia, established in the late 1990s, Putin said: “One should finally separate the flies from the pork chops. That is, to stop subsidising Belarus if Russia hears endlessly repeated empty declarations about ‘deeper integration’  in return.” 

Recent talks between the two rulers lasted many hours. We don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but when documents ready for signing were presented to Lukashenko, he said: “I see here in the title the term Directive!”—meaning an order that must be executed. To which Putin replied, “You can sign it or not.” And then he elaborated: if Belarus accepts these ‘directives’ here and now, it will continue to receive the gas and oil it needs at prices eight times lower than market rates (sometimes even ten times lower). These energy carriers obtained from Russia are partly re-exported in a processed form and bring significant revenues to the Belarusian budget. Belarus simply cannot afford to buy crude oil at market prices. 

We are touching here upon the truth about the roots of modern conflicts: they originate not in relations between states but in the situation within them. This conclusion applies equally to tensions between Russia and its neighbors, and to internal processes that emerged with enormous force in many major democratic countries: USA (mass protest demonstrations on 6 January 2021 in front of the Capitol on the eve of the swearing-in of the new president), UK (Brexit), France (‘yellow vests’), the Netherlands and many other countries with stable democracies, where populism and anti-immigration movements set the tone of public debate.

The democratic world today has a problem of how to arrange its relations with Belarus. 

Lukashenko has not been recognized by the West as a legitimate president. He is a usurper. Like all the countries of the transatlantic community, we have recognised Svetlana Tikhanouskaya as the leader of the country. 

The question on the agenda is: “How to shape relations with the official Minsk”? The answer became more important when Lukashenko deliberately created an artificial migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border, which is also the eastern border of the European Union. The dilemma of EU diplomacy comes down to resolving the humanitarian crisis (preventing people from dying of hunger, cold and disease on the border) and at the same time not legitimizing the usurper, for whom power and international recognition are more important than people’s lives. 

In today’s world, diplomacy is practiced in the spotlight. This is not conducive to solving problems, especially the difficult and sensitive ones.

Seeking such solutions requires discretion and confidentiality to ensure each side ‘saves face’. Making conversations public does not facilitate a way out of what is perceived as a no-win situation. I know this from my own experience. One of the most difficult tasks entrusted to me years ago by the CSCE Council of Ministers was to work out a political solution to the bloody conflict in the war-torn Transnistria. 

At the beginning of the 1990s, as the representative of the Chairman of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I submitted a report, which was modest in form but proved effective in practice. It laid the groundwork for a political solution to the conflict in the sense that it allowed both sides to ‘save face’. What made it easier for me to carry out this mission boiled down not only to gaining an understanding of the adversaries in the conflict, but also to avoiding the propaganda hype around the issue.

The conversation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had with the Belarusian dictator should not be considered a ‘mistake’. It was a gesture of an experienced politician, dictated in equal measure by the ethical and political considerations. People dying of cold and hunger should never be left on their own. If the crisis cannot be resolved without Lukashenko’s involvement, we must talk to him, even though the European Union does not consider him to be the legitimate President of Belarus. The most important thing is that the strategy chosen by Merkel has proved partially effective. Fewer and fewer refugees are arriving in Minsk, and many have decided to return to their countries of origin. 

Poland had delayed the internationalization of the crisis for a long time. 

And this was a mistake. We should have acted from the position of a member state of the European Union and NATO; we should have taken advantage of the specialized institutions, experience, and resources of both these communities. Acting alone and in isolation carries the risk that did materialize this time, namely the search for solutions will take place without our participation. It is necessary to stick to the principle: “Nothing about us without us”.

Russia is another great challenge to the democratic world. It is currently trying to achieve its goals by drawing more and more ‘red lines’. We are constantly receiving information about the transfer of military units and equipment to the Ukrainian-Russian border. How to talk to Russia, a country that does not want to engage in any dialogue? 

The Russian position thus outlined does not fully reflect the actual state of affairs. On this issue, on 7 December 2021, a conversation took place between the leaders of Russia and the United States. They agreed on the framework and forms of further contacts and continuation of dialogue. President Biden did not accept any ‘red lines’ to limit Ukraine’s sovereign rights to take actions ensuring its security. Russia, in turn, expects the United States to provide ‘written guarantees’ of its own security and assurances that Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO. This expectation from a superpower with massive missile and nuclear capabilities signals that Russia is aware of its weaknesses. It has been experiencing an economic stagnation, declining standards of living, social tensions, a demographic crisis, etc. Moscow’s strategy is based on an attempt to use the military potential for various types of pressure, blackmail, intimidation of its neighbours, and destabilization of its surroundings (this concerns both the ‘near abroad’, i.e. Ukraine, and the European Union, which is illustrated by the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline).

It is practicing a foreign and security policy based on arousing fear and generating a sense of uncertainty and unpredictability. It is exploiting the fact that the people of Western Europe and its leaders are afraid of war. 

There are many indications that Moscow perceives fear as a political instrument. In 2014, when Vladimir Putin decided to annex Crimea, the question in Poland and the West was, “Where will Russia stop? What will be its next territorial demands?” Both then and today my answer is the same: “It will stop where it is stopped.” Blackmail ceases to work if the targeted states and nations show a determination to confront naked force. Effective counteraction by the community of democratic states to the policy of fear-mongering and drawing more and more ‘red lines’ requires determination, solidarity, and a staunch opposition to blackmail and evil on the part of the leaders of the West. The inviolability of borders and respect for human rights are two pillars of the international order to which all European and world states have committed themselves. 

But what must be done to turn these words and declarations into reality?

Each civilization and each region of the world seeks the way to this goal in a way attuned to its unique tradition, culture and mentality. There is no single model that would suit all. In Europe, it proved effective to create structures that grew out of the ideas of Enlightenment and the dramatic history and experience. To this day we invoke the Westphalian order based on the Peace Principles agreed upon after the religious wars that devastated Europe (1648). The next stages in the history of Europe were: the Congress of Vienna (1815), which terminated the period of Napoleonic wars; the Peace of Versailles (1919) after World War I; and finally, the agreements of the Allied States in Yalta and Potsdam (1945) after World War II. They not only closed off the past, but also laid the foundations for a new global system. I am thinking of the United Nations Charter adopted on 24 October 1945, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and many other fundamental acts. 

The founding fathers of the European Union based their thinking on a simple idea: create such institutions and structures that would preclude war between the major powers on the continent, that is Germany and France. Accordingly, the idea of the Coal and Steel Community was based on the principle of interdependence. This approach proved successful. Note that in Europe peace has never before lasted as long as it does today. All the wars which gradually embroiled the entire continent were generally fought in a quadrangle formed by Prussia (later Germany), France, Great Britain and Russia.

After the European Union came into being, an armed conflict between Germany and France became unimaginable. I believe that it is possible to build similar peaceful structures not only in Western Europe, but also in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Currently it is difficult to talk about democratic changes in Russia, but one day it will happen there as well. Several decades ago, we could not have imagined the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the East to this day it is still a widely accepted claim that the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of a conspiracy and “trickery of the West”, the shenanigans of NATO. In fact, the causes were different: the disintegration resulted from a systemic inability to change and reform. There was a growing disproportion between the people’s expectations and the government’s ability to meet them. It was an economy of a militarized state, prepared for war rather than for life in peace. 

Today’s Russia faces similar problems. Many observers find it difficult to imagine a democratic Russia, but that does not mean that the superpower is doomed to perpetual authoritarianism.

Three decades have passed since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Did you look on those events with hope or fear? Did you think about the triumph of democracy or did you fear an explosion of dormant nationalism and bloodshed?

Hope prevailed. Perhaps it was naïve to think that since the breakup was peaceful, it would be possible to regulate relations between the Russian Federation and the former union republics in a way similar to, for example, what happened between the Slovaks and the Czechs after the civilized ‘divorce’ of the married couple called Czechoslovakia. Today, after all, relations between these nations are better than they were in the days of coexistence in a common state. 

Not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as director of SIPRI – the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – I invited Mikhail Gorbachev, then already a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to give a public lecture in Stockholm in a series in memory of former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. I was fortunate to have several personal conversations with him. I took the opportunity to ask him about uncomfortable issues. My impression was that Gorbachev was – and still is – honest, but also to some extent naive. He was ready to back down in a confrontation with his opponents rather than resort to force. But he held and still holds the opinion that the Soviet Union could have been preserved. He even gave me his book “The Union Could Have Been Preserved” (Moscow 1995). He was wrong. This ‘union’ could not have been preserved without the use of force.

The same idea guides Vladimir Putin. Russia’s foreign policy presupposes – to some extent – the reintegration of the USSR. 

I don’t think this is Putin’s strategy. In his opinion, the former union republics should come to terms with the fact that they belong to the Russian ‘sphere of influence’. Let us recall: after the collapse of the USSR, Boris Yeltsin took power in Russia; for the Russian political elite, but also society, it became a challenge to look for a new unifying idea for the Russian Federation. President Yeltsin even appealed to the Russian elite, i.e. scholars and thinkers, to formulate a new version of what he described as the ruskaya idieya (Russian idea). Various studies were produced, generally without much value. A unifying idea for a state does not arise on the spur of the moment. 

The Bolshevik project on nationality relations, for which Stalin was responsible after the revolution, was severely criticized by Lenin as marked with an arrogant attitude on the part of the Great-Russians. After the victorious end of the war with Germany, at a celebratory banquet in the Kremlin (24 June 1945), Stalin gave a toast that may have inspired Orwell before he wrote Animal Farm (“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”). Russia’s special role was explicitly expressed in the Soviet anthem: “Unbreakable Union of freeborn Republics, / Great Russia has welded forever to stand….” This prophecy did not come true. On 25 December 1991, at 7:38 pm, the red flag was lowered over the Kremlin and the tricolour flag of the Russian Federation was flown.

The colors changed, but the idea of acting like a superpower towards neighbors and the rest of the world remained.

There is an ingrained conviction in the elite and in society that Russia has a mission to fulfil, not only towards its own people, but also towards other Slavic nations and even the whole world. As is well known, Joe Biden, the US president, did not invite Russia, along with China, Turkey or Hungary, to the Democracy Summit he convened (Washington, 10 December 2021). This irritated Russian commentators. The way they look at it, the American understanding of democracy is an attempt by the ‘collective West’ to impose its values, rules, norms and principles on the rest of the world; in its extreme version it is supposed to be a “triumph of the LGBT”. In search of a new ‘Russian idea’ to unite the nation and the Russian state, Putin formulated the concept of “moderate conservatism” at the Valdai Club (November 2021). It would be based on respect for “our traditional Russian values”, that is respect for authority, the Orthodox faith, and the family as the traditional union of man and woman.

I remember my long conversation with academic Yevgeny Primakov in Stockholm in December 2000. It was behind-the-scenes of the Nobel Prize ceremony for the Russian physicist Zhores Alferov. Primakov was no longer an important state official. He came at the invitation of his friend, the Nobel laureate. We sat next to each other over lunch, and during our casual conversation I asked: “Why doesn’t Russia take the democratic path of development?” My interlocutor, after a moment’s reflection, said that Russia did not have its Magna Charta Libertatum (1215) or the French Revolution. In Russia, he said, democracy turns to chaos and lawlessness. “With us, democracy can only be controlled from above and carefully dosed with a dropper. Soviet power did not make the society conversant with democracy either. We have no practical experience with democracy. What we do can be called ‘sovereign Russian’ democracy.” 

After the collapse of the USSR, the idea of reuniting the East Slavic nations, that is Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, emerged among the Russian elite. This thinking was addressed primarily to Ukraine, if only because of the common roots of both nations stemming from Kievan Rus. Vladimir Putin says that “Ukrainians and Russians constitute one nation.” If such a ‘reintegration’ project were to come to fruition, it would be in essence a realization of the concept outlined by the iconic writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his book Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals. The future of relations between the conflict-ridden nations of this part of Europe will be determined, however, not by scenarios drawn up by someone, but by the confluence of many factors and events. Life itself will write the script.

Małgorzata Nocuń

is a journalist specializing in Eastern Europe. In 2004-2006, she was a correspondent for the Tygodnik Powszechny weekly in Ukraine and Belarus. She is an editor of the Nowa Europa Wschodnia quarterly. She is the author of the book Wczesne życie and, together with Andrzej Brzeziecki, the books Białoruś: Kartofle i dżinsy, Ograbiony naród: Rozmowy z intelektualistami białoruskimi, and Armenia: Karawana śmierci. In 2014, she won an award in the Amnesty International “Pen of Hope” contest for her reporting from the North Caucasus.

Adam Daniel Rotfeld

is Professor of humanities, a Polish diplomat and politician and a researcher and specialist in international relations. He worked at the Polish Institute of International Affairs from 1961 to 1989 and was Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) from 1991 to 2002. In 1992-1993, he was the CSCE Chairman’s Special Representative for the Transdniestrian Settlement Process. He was a member of the National Security Council to the President of Poland and numerous councils and scientific societies. In 2001-2005, he served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and  in 2005 Minister of Foreign Affairs.

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