Putin’s Great Game

An interview with Andrei Kolesnikov by Filip Memches

The Russian leader is trying to divide Europe. He is unsuccessful in that, because he is recruiting weak players—says Andrei Kolesnikov in an interview with Filip Memches.

Europe is struggling with a wave of refugees, but there is much less talk about Ukraine. Is such a state of affairs a surprise, a gift for the Kremlin?

The attention of Russia and of the entire word is now focused on Syria. But Russia does not treat Syria as a country from which people are fleeing to Europe because of the war, but as a place where Vladimir Putin has started a great geopolitical operation, aimed at forming an anti-terrorist coalition on his terms. Putin and Sergei Lavrov have convinced the Russian public opinion that the West is to blame for the migration crisis, for—such arguments are made here—it was the policy of the European Union countries and NATO which led to the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, which in turn destabilized the situation there and launched the refugee wave. This is how it is formulated by Russian propaganda. As far as Ukraine is concerned, on the one hand it is indeed overshadowed by other events, but on the other hand the situation in the Donbas has really become frozen and therefore side-lined.

Entering the Middle East by Russia is the return to what we observed in the 1980s. It is a repeat of the Cold War, rather than forming a wide-ranging anti-terrorist coalition.

We already have a new Cold War. But in the past it was a bipolar arrangement, there were two superpowers using nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Now it is different. Putin’s proposal to support the regime of Bashar Assad is not going to be approved by Americans and the Russian President understands that.

So why is he making it?

He is provoking the White House. It is a game calculated at boosting his own image, played mostly for domestic use. Putin shows his electorate that he is a strong leader, a game changer; that he decides about the fate of the world, that he dictates new rules and defines a new global order. In this sense he emerges as a successor to Soviet leaders, for he is not resolving regional problems, but issues concerning what happens thousands of kilometers from the borders of the Russian Federation. At the same time he puts his Western colleagues in a difficult position. And they in their turn invite him to a coalition which, as Barack Obama said in September, includes about 60 countries. Yet negotiations conducted in this way lead us to nowhere. For in this situation Putin and Obama may reach agreement only on technical questions—for example, that Russians and Americans would not shoot at each other during the armed operations in Syria. Of course, this is important too.

This great geopolitical game played by the Russian president is a continuation of what he started last year. I mean the annexation of Crimea. It was an element of a kind of contract with the Russian society: I give you Crimea in exchange for civil liberties. And as the importance of the Crimea is declining, Putin ads Syria to that contract. It is a demonstration of Russia’s “standing up from its knees,” restoration of Russian superpower status, it is a continuation of the policy which meant success for Putin. So it is an undertaking, very important in terms of PR, which makes it possible to consolidate the Russian society around their government leader.

You are speaking in the context of domestic policy. But the international dimension is also present here. By getting involved in Syria, Moscow is supporting one of the sides of the conflict in this country, which may have dramatic consequences for Russia.

The Kremlin elite is aware of the threat coming from Islam. Therefore it tries to prevent the Islamic State from appearing at the southern borders of Russia. In this sense it is a realistic motivation.

But supporting Assad against the Islamic State is not all. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia wanted to have good relations with all Middle Eastern countries, which included re-establishing relations with Israel. If it now so unambiguously supports the Syrian dictator, Tel Aviv might not like it.

The course taken by Putin is full of contradictions. But Russia’s president has long been creating global problems through annexation of the Crimea and the hybrid war in the Donbas, so it should not be a surprise for anyone that he started a provocative war in the Middle East, ignoring everyone else’s concerns. He steals the Western topic of the day and proposes a positive— from his point of view—program which in fact is absolutely unacceptable for the West. This is a completely deliberate action. It is not conducive to any detente, to any reset in Russia’s relations with the US, although the decision to meet Obama in September might be interpreted as a benevolent gesture. However, I think that this policy is a long term trend.

During the former Cold War the Soviet Union was a great power striving for global hegemony. Now Russia entertains no such ambitions, for—as it seems—it does not have such resources as before. The idea of global communism was replaced by the idea of a “multipolar world.” To what extent is the Kremlin really promoting this idea, and to what extent it represents only a facade behind which the former Soviet imperialism is restored, aiming at a “unipolar world” based on terms defined by Moscow?

Perhaps we are indeed dealing here with the emergence of “multipolar world,” however, its poles are definitely outside Russia. So it is different than in the Soviet times. Putin is not building an empire, but an imitation of one. He was born too late. Today you don’t make politics as you did a few dozen years ago. The annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war in Donbas was a surprise for the civilized part of the world and greatly changed the global order. But Putin has not turned Russia into a pole, since armed power is not enough for that. You need both hard and soft power. And Russia is not attractive in humanitarian or economic terms. It has not become and in the foreseeable future cannot become another global pole, nowhere in the word is it treated like that. There are two poles: China—all the reservations about this huge country notwithstanding—and the Western civilization including the US. In the case of Russia we are dealing with resentments of someone who feels inferior towards some successful others he wants to imitate. Therefore it requires a psychological rather than a political analysis, an analysis of Putin’s personality and not of global processes.

So how would you characterize the Russian president?

It is a personality of an average KGB officer with a high IQ, who is a moderate nationalist and perceives the Russian Orthodox Church as a kind of ideological division of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party. He still regards Russia as an empire. He has a map of “Russian World” in his head, of which the events in Crimea and Donbas are a consequence. And as the “Russian World” on this map also has its borders, Putin is never going to attack the Baltic countries or Finland. An overwhelming majority of the Russian society thinks about the world just as its president does. They are haunted by the trauma of the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. In this sense a large part of the Russian society responds to Putin, he has his military constituency. And when you are speaking about the Crimean constituency, you mean specific people who are ready to support such a quasi-imperial, moderately nationalist policy. This is supplemented by the belief in the power of the state, in government interventionism. Unfortunately, this is 19th-century thinking, which finds fertile ground among the Russian elites and society.

Are the sanctions and economic deterioration going to change the attitude of Russians towards Putin?

The crisis situation should raise doubts as to the effectiveness of the method of governing represented by the head of the Russian state. It is possible that such doubts will appear at some stage. But now we observe a different tendency—Putin has succeeded in convincing the Russians that they live in a besieged fortress, so they experience the Stockholm syndrome towards him and they unite around their leader. The sanctions, which were intended at making the Russians critical of Putin, brought about the opposite effect. People have come to feel as members of the leader’s team, which was to be expected. Opinion polls suggest that people are aware of the crisis, but do not see Putin as the source of the situation, on the contrary— they count on the regime as the factor which will help them. You have to realize that Putin’s constituency are government employees, who are financially dependent on the state. Therefore they do not go out in the streets, they do not protest, for they count on help from above. Moreover, recent years convinced unreflective people that participating in mass protests lands you in jail. This is why you cannot see any signs of rebellion, not so much political, but a social rebellion concerned with material demands. I should add, though, that you cannot predict when mass protest will erupt, especially in Moscow.

Is it possible that we will see an agreement between Russia and the West which will result in lifting or at least reducing the sanctions?

It seems to me that the West cannot do it now for political reasons. Putin would want that, although sanctions are not weakening the Russian economy as much as they did before. And the West would also like to reduce the tension, because there are problems it would want to solve together with Putin, for example the Syrian issue. But even joint solving of certain technical issues will not change the essence of the situation, which is the aggressive Russian policy. The West needs a guarantee that the conflict in Donbas would be frozen to such an extent that there will be no armed operations. And that Putin would not cause trouble in Syria.

And a compromise on Ukraine? Can you imagine the following scenario: the Russians give up on Donbas in exchange for Western recognition of the annexation of Crimea?

I suppose that both sides are thinking along these lines, but cannot talk about it openly, especially in the case of the West. Expansion Putin- style is unacceptable in the 21st century. Added to this is the emotional barrier between Russian and Ukrainian elites. No agreement between them is possible in the coming years. So there is room for such a compromise, but there are no conditions for striking it. It is not a realistic scenario.

Is it not a problem for Putin himself that he wanted to have the whole Ukraine and he has to be content with the Crimea instead?

Russians are of course aware of this situation, but Putin is blaming the West for it. So there is a widespread belief that you have to come to terms with it, although the situation remains very unsatisfactory. Still, the elites, especially military ones, are hoping that the current administration in Ukraine will fail, that it will be removed from power. Only these hopes are futile, and hence they are diverting attention to other issues: China or, as we are seeing now, Syria.

Russia has tried to play particular members of the European Union against each other in the context of Ukraine. Slovakia or Hungary raised objections to the sanctions. The EU is not speaking in one voice on the refugee issue. Can the Kremlin take advantage of that?

Indeed, he is trying to divide Europe, but he is unsuccessful in that, because he is recruiting weak players. We must recognize the fact that European institutions are strong, despite all the problems.

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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