Putin will not let go of Ukraine and lead a hybrid war. The only way out of the conflict is the participation of a mediator of the Pope’s level, thinks the author of several books on Putin
Political expert Stanislav Belkovsky is one of the few well-known Russians which remained Ukraine’s friend after the events of the past five months. What is more, after the annex of Crimea he expressed his will to become a citizen of Ukraine.
NV spoke with the famous political expert about the possible scenario of how events in Ukraine will unfold, Vladimir Putin, and the future of the Ukraine-Russia relations.
In your interviews a year ago you predicted the end of the suspension era both for Ukraine and Russia. Things are clear with Ukraine, and what will happen with Russia?
I think it will end by 2017. Why? I cannot explain it. It’s intuitive. I see how much this regime has entered the stage of self-destruction. The detonator of this destruction is Ukraine. Not the cause, but the catalyst. If a person wanted to find a bomb and blow themselves up on it and found it, it does not mean that the bomb was the cause. It is just an instrument.
What is the atmosphere in Russia now?
The atmosphere is quite heavy, as 85% of Russians do not share my views, and personally I feel isolated in my country. But I don’t really care about it.
We were hoping that the social surveys that show such high support of Vladimir Putin in Russia may be lying just a big…
Of course, surveys in contemporary Russia are a very arbitrary term. I have been saying for many years on end, that in a closed society the majority of respondents perceive a sociologist as a police officer or a government agent. And they frequently say what they don’t think in reality but what the government wants to hear, from their point of view.
But now I am forced to conclude that temporarily and locally there really is a significant consolidation of society around Putin. Mostly on the basis of anti-Ukrainian, anti-European and anti-American ideas. But it is very fleeting, because the Russian society and its mentality are mobile and flexible. As soon as the political and intellectual conjuncture change, the 85% may turn into 15%. And vice versa.
We just need to take it and survive. Russia is most apt at waiting at catching up. As they say, it is necessary to live long in Russia. The situation now is such, that we only need to survive this period of time. I hope it won’t be too long.
What does Putin intend to do with this?
For this, we have to analyze Putin’s psychological type, as in the system of government which has been constructed in Russia, where democratic institutions don’t exist, everything depends on the will of one single person, which means, on their psychological features. Putin cannot withstand pressure. He is unprepared to make decisions under pressure and frequently does the contrary in such situations. He thinks that he has sent numerous signals about the readiness for friendship to the world. What he wants the most is to hold talks with the West regarding the fate of Ukraine.
Putin is absolutely convinced that the new revolution in Ukraine was made by the United States, it is impossible to convince him otherwise, because he is a person with a paranoid and conspiracy-oriented consciousness. He thinks that the US wants to depose him as well. I think that the Arab Spring, which made quite an impression on him, encouraged his return to his post as President in many ways, something he might not have initially planned. He returned, having decided that only he will be able to keep hold of the situation. It is the most popular term nowadays in Putin’s circles – “to keep hold of the situation.”
What does it mean?
That Russia is on a horse, it has gotten off its knees and has control of the situation, and on the other hand that it has to be held. The two definitions are contradictory, because what is there to keep hold of if everything is fine? But Putin’s basic logic is such – keep hold of the situation, not to let the regime fall.
But will it fall?
It is possible, of course. The question is when. I think that the Ukrainian machination is a suicide act for Putin. I have been saying it since the beginning, starting with the annex of Crimea.
Putin has always followed the logic “leave room for maneuvering, it is unacceptable to back oneself into a corner.” In 2000 in the book Conversation From the First Person, which is a series of Putin’s interviews with journalists Nataliya Gevorkian, Andrey Kolesnikov and Natalya Semakova, the head of the Russian Federation offered a very stark example about how a rat should not be backed into a corner. It even describes how he backed a rat into a corner in his home in St. Petersburg and what happened next. Now he is playing the part of that very rat, however he was the one who trapped himself. Which is why the annex of Crimea birthed a number of irreversible consequences. He can neither return the Crimea, nor agree with the West, as that would mean a de-facto acknowledgment of the annex. It is very difficult to find compromise between Putin and the West today.
Putin is trying to convince the West that the fate of Ukraine is very second or third-rate in importance, so let’s agree on all the issues, while ignoring it. So let’s agree to divide it.
The West is not ready for this, and Putin does not believe and thinks that only the US is showing its excessive ambitions as a superpower, and the European Union, which is tied to Russia with colossal trade circulation and mutual economic interests, is ready for this, essentially. Putin cannot believe that the US and the European Union might have some common values which are higher than economic interests.
So everything depends on the European Union?
Of course, it always did. But meanwhile Putin, as someone who is not ready to make decision under pressure and who is organically countering it, may react to the sanctions of the US and the European Union in an incorrect fashion. I think that the imposition of new sanctions increases the chances that Putin will invest additional resources in destabilizing the situation in the east and south of Ukraine. To the extent of individual attacks on Ukrainian territory.
But he did it even without the sanctions.
We always did it as a means to retaliate to yet another wave of negativity on part of the West. Had the United States made peace with him about the fate of Ukraine immediately after the February revolution, he would not have annexed Crimea. The US refused to hold such dialogue with him, having noted that the fate of Ukraine is outside of his competence and the issue of talks between Washington and Moscow, and he annexed Crimea.
After this sanctions and the refusal of new talks followed – he destabilized the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk. This logic may develop even further, judging from Putin’s psychological type. We should not try to look for purely political logic. It is the logic of someone who has been in power for 14,5 years and who considers himself quite successful and happy.
What possibilities as to the development of the situation do you see?
As he is backed further into a corner, there are two options. The first is Putin’s disappearance in any format. The second, he continues the escalation. I will not try to evaluate the probability of the first. But it is possible in principle, regardless of our wishes.
Do the sanctions against Putin’s associates make the first option more probable?
Yes, it is a factor that would contribute to the probability of the first option. Besides, we are all people under God’s will.
And the second option – how long may the escalation last?
As long as it takes, taking into account that the Russian army is unprepared for large-scale war neither theoretically, nor practically. It is the limiting factor on World War III. Therefore I don’t believe that the Russian tanks will enter Kyiv. But the supplies of weapons, military support of the separatists, fire from Russian territory and a semi-open accumulation of troops, even without identification, are all possible.
Besides, taking into account that, being unready for large-scale war, he is leading a hybrid war, the activation of various terrorist activity is possible, including that against individual politicians.
Therefore I would draw the attention of [Petro] Poroshenko, though he doesn’t need my advice, to the necessity of his personal security.
All right, everything is clear with Putin, Obama and the rest. What would you advise to the Ukrainian President in this situation?
Putin does not want talks with Poroshenko, because he does not consider him or anyone sitting in his seat an independent figure. He wants talks with the West, and the West cannot agree, because there is no platform, no starting point.
Besides, all western leaders which may participate in such talks are have already taken the anti-Russian side. Therefore some sort of third party is needed, which is not involved in the conflict, which is not perceived by Putin as an enemy. It is the figure on the level of the Pope. I am not saying it should be him in particular, but the criteria are clear: big international authority, lack of involvement in the conflict and a current position that is not seen by Putin as hostile.
If there is such an international figure, they may enter dialogue with Putin, which is necessary either way. Without it, it will be impossible to stop the conflict, and escalation will continue. Putin has no opportunity for a large-scale war, but he does have all the necessary means for escalation.
So you would advise Kyiv to seek such a figure?
No, I would probably advise Washington to do so.
And what should Kyiv do?
Kyiv can only influence Russia through western partners, but not directly.
So it turns out our war is senseless?
No, of course not. If not for this war, Putin would have already taken a significant part of the east of Ukraine and in Donetsk, there would already be a Novorossiya headed by Viktor Medvedchuk.
Are such talks about Ukraine’s fate between Putin and the West acceptable for it?
As of today, no. But the question is how much can Putin destabilize the situation in Ukraine.
Tell me, do people in Russia really hate Ukrainians now? Can you feel it?
Yes, I can. Even when talking to my numerous associates and friends. They have also fallen victim to this propaganda. Many people I have been in contact with for years have taken the position that “Ukrainians are freaks of humanity and acting on orders of Americans and want to destroy everything.” If I walk down Bolshaya Bronnaya street where I live now, three out of four passers-by would say that the Malaysian Boeing was downed by Ukrainians. And they would be completely sincere. So you can imagine how hard it is for me here. I am not hyperbolizing my suffering, of course. I have it easier than, for example, [Sergey] Udaltsov and [Leonid] Razvozhayev [Russian opposition activists, convicted for organizing mass disorders], who recently were condemned to 4,5 years in prison, but the psychological atmosphere in Russia is becoming more and more hostile for people such as myself.
Do you predict any serious threats in this light?
I cannot predict them for sure, but I cannot exclude them completely.
I have said back in March that even if they don’t put me behind bars, the possibility that I will get beaten up in the street is growing exponentially.
Does it seem to you that our con tries will be able to restore relations in the future?
Of course. Without doubt. I see no obstacles here. The current conflict is vastly birthed not by Russia’s objective interests, and not even, as Vladimir Putin has recently become fond of saying, “substantive interests of some groups of influence inside Russia.” This conflict was brought about by Putin, and only him. By his specific perceptions of life and psychological features. When the President changes, so will the rhetoric, and the people will be able to love Ukraine again. Any future leader will have to correct the mistakes of their predecessor. And this [the escalation of relations with Ukraine] is a huge mistake.
Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina