Lilia Shevtsova, Russian political scientist and leading research associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on Putin’s plans, Ukrainian corruption, and the fifth column in the Rada.
Q: Please comment on the signing of the ‘Minsk peace agreement’ and the delay in the implementation of the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU. Did Putin win this round?
A: It sometimes happens that a tactical victory very quickly turns into a strategic defeat. If we evaluate these events only in the context of “win-loss,” then we could come to the conclusion that yes, Minsk, and especially the delayed implementation – is really a victory for Putin. He made the West dance a Russian polka to his tune.
Q: But on the other hand, everything that Putin is doing now in Ukraine is madly and dramatically accelerating the political processes in Russia which undermine his power and hasten the death throes of his regime.
A: Looking at the Minsk agreement from the sidelines, I can come to the same conclusion that many Ukrainian observers have come to, and that is: It is a forced, tactical truce which is needed by both sides – by Poroshenko and Putin.
Q: Why do both sides need a respite?
A: Ukraine today has exhausted both the option of militarily counterattacking Russia and the option of militarily liberating the Donetsk region. Ukraine has bled itself dry.
Putin also needs a fixed truce. And not because he currently lacks military-technical resources. He needs to think, look around and see what to do next. A quick victory in southeastern Ukraine did not work out for him, he incurred sanctions. Sanctions bite, but they are fully digestible. They have not yet destabilized Putin’s power nor his economy. But for Putin right now it is more advantageous to consolidate, look around and possibly find other ways to strangle Ukraine.
If we are talking about the results of the Minsk agreement for Putin, then this pause is only a period for the Kremlin to consider other scenarios. Putin’s further actions in Ukraine will still be aimed at undermining the Ukrainian state. But you should also understand that for Putin, Ukraine is just a laboratory. Let us put it this way, it is a golf course for a game with the West.
“Ukraine, in leaving for the West, takes with it the legitimacy of the Russian state and we remain as Muscovy.”
Q: And what about the well-known thesis ‘There is no Russian empire without Ukraine?”
A: And that, too. When I talk about (Ukraine as) “a golf course for a game with the West,” I do not wish to offend a great country. It is just that one does not exclude the other.
Right now in Ukraine, Putin is holding back the West as a civilization. The classic political scientist Francis Fukuyama turned out to be completely wrong when he talked about the end of history – in Ukraine there has begun a new era of the clash of Russian autocracy with Western civilization.
Now as regards the thesis “Without Ukraine there can be no Russian Empire,” Putin, as a man who has spent so much time in the tall corridors of the Kremlin, is beginning to become aware of the genetic code of Russian power. Having read history books (and he does read history books) he realized that without Ukraine, it is very difficult to confirm the legitimacy not only of Russian Orthodoxy but also of the Russian state, which supposedly dates back to Kyivan Rus.
Ukraine, in leaving for the West, takes with it the legitimacy of the Russian state and we remain as Muscovy, which was settled by people unknown. Russia will then have to start the counting of its history not from the thousand-year history of Christianity and the Baptism of Rus, but from Andrey Boholubskiy from the twelfth century – and that is already a completely different story.
Therefore Ukraine is of paramount importance to Russia. First of all – Ukraine for Russia is a defense for its own history, and hence its state. Second – it is a defense by the Kremlin of its own legitimacy. Third – it is the prevention of a Maidan in Russia. Fourth – it is a challenge for Europe and the Western world. You have shaken a sleeping, paralyzed Europe and said: “Hey, are you sleeping? And we are fighting for your values.”
Q: How would you describe in more detail Europe’s position with regard to Ukraine?
A: In response to your appeals, Europe is actually telling you “We don’t want you, we are not ready for you.” That is the question – will Ukraine wake up the West or not? And in this lies the great drama of Ukraine. You have awakened at a time when the Western world turned out to be unprepared for you. In 1989, when the world’s socialist system began to fall apart, the West was burning with a desire to embrace the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and so on. They gave them conditions, although they were tough. They accepted them in NATO and in the EU, they helped them.
Now the West rejects Ukraine because it is a burden. But there is public opinion, which is beginning to awaken and it is starting to work for you.
Now the West will not accept Ukraine, it is not ready for you, it is not ready for action. Today in NATO and in the major capitals there are only paralytics and political midgets.
But those midgets are replaceable in elections, and in two or three years a new generation will come to the EU leadership; if you persist and do not turn away from your goal, victory will be yours.
“Now the West will not accept Ukraine, it is not ready for you. Today in NATO and in the major capitals there are only paralytics and political midgets.”
Q: How do you assess the Ukrainian elite? Can one go into the European Union with it?
A: Your elite – I do not point to anyone personally, but I think it is transitional. These are people from the past, and perhaps even if this elite wants to lead the country into the future, still, being from the past, it sees its task as simply holding the bridgehead. As long as it does not slide back into the past, but passes onto your politically immature generation – the generation of the 30-somethings – the governance of your country. You need three or four years in order for the Maidan generation to finally become mature enough to run the country.
Q: You say that in two to three years, the West will be ready to accept Ukraine, if we do not give up. But does Ukraine have those two or three years at its disposal? Putin is not stopping.
A: Putin will not stop. But no one can say what will happen tomorrow. Putin’s regime has entered into a period of agony. But agony can continue for a long time. The agony of the Ottoman Empire lasted 300 years. But Putin is hastening that process. Putin’s real base is at a 15% level of confidence. He is actively zombifying and demoralizing the rest.
Q: Will economic sanctions be able to hasten the end of Putin?
A: I look at the economic crisis in Russia as the salvation of the country. There is a small chance that the economic crisis will awaken Russian society. Sanctions bring this crisis closer, but it also has its own reasons.
For now it is hard for me to say how sanctions strengthen and deepen the crisis. I would say this: sanctions speed up the crisis, raise the temperature a bit, but for the time being they are not fatal to Putin’s system.
However, by the spring the sanctions might in fact bring about great trouble. Putin understands this and he wants to solve the problem of Ukraine in the gap between now and spring.
Q: What should Ukraine prepare for?
A: You should be afraid not only of a military offensive by Russian troops. Yes, Putin will force a stranglehold on you because, among other things, Crimea will not be able to survive the winter without Ukrainian resources.
But while focusing on this, you should not forget the second battlefield in Putin’s fight for Ukraine – and this is the sphere of Ukrainian corruption, the bribery of the Ukrainian elite. Russia will certainly take part in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, it will bribe politicians and oligarchs. Practically all your oligarchs have sources of enrichment in Russia.
Q: Including the president…
A: I do not comment on personalities. Russia will take part in your election campaign and if you look away for a moment, then your Kremlin fifth column will be in the Rada (parliament). And this is also a way to exert pressure.
“You should not forget the second battlefield in Putin’s fight for Ukraine – and this is the sphere of Ukrainian corruption, the bribery of the Ukrainian elite. Russia will certainly take part in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections.”
Q: Are there any options for a change of power in Russia, other than the death of Putin?
A: Theoretical ones. Which in any case are impossible without a systemic crisis. Without a crisis there will not be a regime change via a coup. Also a coup is impossible without the Russian political elite’s participation. You should not think that this elite does not exist – it does. It is just that what Putin is doing, on the whole, suits them fine. It does not have an inclination towards too much grief.
Also, there is not a great chance for the emergence of a new figure in the power structure. Even a coup might simply become a deceptive means for a way out of the situation. The system is strong enough so that even with the theoretical possibility of the replacement of Putin, a new ruler will come out of that system. He will gain legitimacy and, possibly with modifications, will continue on the same course.
In order to give rise to a new leader, it would be good if more than 15 to 17 percent of the society professed liberal values. This is needed so that the society, having experienced a crisis, would be ready to create in Russia a state based on the rule of law.
Q: How would you describe Putin’s regime: authoritarian, totalitarian, or some totally new concept?
A: Today the Russian reality is absolutely unique. Such a political regime has never existed in history, we never resolved our problems in this way.
Q: Is Putin more authoritarian than Stalin?
A: Such a praetorian regime has never existed in Russia. There have been autocratic regimes, but never praetorian ones. Modern praetorian-armed forces not only control power – they are the power. They have their own repressive resources. Such a regime cannot leave power voluntarily. Therefore we must prepare – and you, too – for an extremely painful phase.