A diplomat who sees no soul in Putin: he is a very vulnerable man

Vladimiras Putinas
Vladimir Putin AP/Scanpix

“I was interviewed by journalists a couple of months ago, and they counted that of the politicians alive and active now. I have seen Putin the most times. I didn’t know that myself. But, I did,” Mr Remigijus Motuzas begins our conversation, Vilmantas Venckūnas writing at tv3.lt news portal.

Motuzas arrived in Russia at a tough time.

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“From the perspective of time, today, we can say that Lithuania was one of the countries that saw and understood Russia most clearly,” said Motuzas.

The diplomat has had personal contact with Vladimir Putin and his entourage. He said that the Russian President is particularly interested in what others think of him and that his environment is accommodating and condescending. Both for personal career prospects and the fear that if you do not go along with the regime, the regime will use repressive measures against you.

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“Often Putin doesn’t see that dynamic, that changing world. He often doesn’t see the real situation because the main goal of the people around him is to please him”, he says.

In an interview with Remigijus Motuz for the news portal tv3.lt, he talks about his work in Russia, the public’s and Putin‘s entourage’s opinion of the Russian leader, possible changes in the Kremlin, and whether, looking into Putin’s eyes, you can see a soul there.

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– You were Lithuania’s Ambassador to Russia from 2015-2019. You travelled to Moscow after the war in Eastern Ukraine had already started and after Russia had occupied Crimea. What were your thoughts when you went to your new post? Probably, diplomats who go to France or some exotic country have different ideas in their heads. But, at the time, you were going to a country that was an aggressor. And you came from Lithuania.

The procedures for appointing diplomatic representatives are pretty lengthy, especially in Russia. It started in the summer of 2014, and I left already in 2015. The situation has already changed a lot in that period. Of course, there was some anxiety, some fear. That was the first feeling. Because you go with a diplomatic mission, you think what we can do. Can we have any influence on Russia? What is happening in Russia? Are there any sprouts of democracy? Do we have any friends?

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I will not hide the fact that it was not a feeling of personal fear but a feeling of concern about what Russia is today. At the first meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Vladimir Titov, the Deputy Foreign Minister, who is in charge of the Baltic countries, said, ‘What is going on here, we used to be together, and now Lithuania does not love us, and your ministers, your leaders are speaking out from the rostrum against Russia. And he kept saying that we were together. And he used the term ‘near abroad’. Then it became very uncomfortable that we were not considered to be an independent state, not an independent state, but a ‘near abroad’. Then I told him not to forget that 30 years had passed, a new generation had grown up in Lithuania, a new generation had grown up in Russia, and they did not know what the Soviet Union was. But they have kept that sense of being a great country, and I felt that when I was in Russia.

During my ambassadorship, the regime tried to mobilise the Russian people after the occupation of Crimea. To reinforce in their consciousness that they are great. That is when the idea of the ”Russki mir” or the ”Russian world” finally took hold. The aim was to unite the Russian people through patriotism.

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However, after 2014, Russia’s political isolation began, and they felt it. And that was and is very important to them. This was also evident when I presented my appointment letters to Vladimir Putin. During our conversation, he repeatedly stressed the need for Russia and Lithuania to be friends and invited our Prime Minister and ministers to come. He was like Leopold the cat in the cartoon, saying ‘let us live in friendship’.

What has happened in Russia over the years is that the political regime has strengthened its power every year. Nowadays, people can communicate with the whole world via the Internet and get all the information they need. The regime is aware of this, which is why it has introduced strict controls on the Internet, banning unwanted information. With Putin’s re-election looming, the press has been under pressure. Publications that received support from foreign countries were automatically given the status of ‘foreign agents’ and eventually banned. These are just some of the repressive measures that were taken during this period.

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What are democracy and a democratic state? We do not even think about these institutions when we have these institutions in place. It is the rule of law, the rule of law, the freedom of the people, the freedom of the press, and the accountability of politicians. At the same time, in Russia, this whole constitutional system has collapsed. In practice, it is a one-person institution that takes decisions and decides everything.

-Are politicians and businessmen convinced by this idea of Putin, of the ‘Russian world’, or is it simply useful for them to be in favour of the regime? How much of that belief is in that idea, and how much of it is out of calculation?

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People adapt in order to survive. We were in contact with civil servants, governors, NGOs, and the media. They understood what was happening.

Business understands very well what is happening. That business, before the sanctions, had good contact with the whole world and saw progress worldwide. There is a great deal of adaptation and fear in Russia because you can be dealt with very quickly. The example of Mr Khodorkovsky well illustrates this, or the case of the former Minister for the Economy, Alexei Ulyukayev, where he was arrested, a bribe was simulated and so on.

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-What, then, is the situation with Putin’s support in society? Is it a genuine belief, or is it also an adaptation?

There is no clear-cut answer. However, the figures published by the Russian sociological research centres, that around 80% of the population support Putin and over 60% say that Putin is going in the right direction, are not correct. I would guess that it is at least half that.

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Regarding public attitudes, we need to understand that Putin’s policy is very clever. An excellent example of this is the big cities – Moscow and St Petersburg – in the context of the war in Ukraine.

They hardly feel that war. There are no troops from Moscow or St Petersburg. Putin knows that the public in these cities is educated and can react very strongly. People from the provinces and autonomous republics are being recruited and mobilised. Where there is high unemployment, and they are being paid to participate in the war. The big cities are thus, as it were, being fooled.

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I was talking to a diplomat colleague who said that in Moscow, when you walk down the street, you see that everything is in the shops, and the authorities try to pretend that nothing has happened. Moscow does not feel the war, and the propaganda partly influences that. We Lithuanians are not so gullible. And it is not difficult to convince people there, especially the older generation, that the West, America, is the enemy.

However, the narrative painted to the public is changing. In the beginning, it was said that Ukrainians were terrible, that there had been a revolution there. Now, for several months now, it has been different. They say that the Ukrainians are good and innocent, but that they have been dragged into the war by the United States, NATO and the European Union. The situation is difficult enough because the propaganda machine is strong, and the economic sanctions have not yet affected the people very much, especially in the big cities. I have just seen an exciting report that whisky imports have fallen by about 40%. I think that might affect the elites who are hungry for Scotch or Irish whiskey (smiled).

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-I had the opportunity to read a statement to the Western media by the mother of a fallen Russian soldier. She is from a Russian province and furious at the government’s actions. According to her, there is more than one such mother of a fallen soldier in the Russian regions. Is it enough for the change in Russia that the Russian areas are the ones that really understand the situation in Ukraine and that it is in the regions that the anger about the current situation arises, and not in the major cities?

In my opinion, the people of the regions are capable of action. I will give you one example. In September, in Russia, there is what is known as the unified election day, when governors, heads of regions and other officials are elected. As Russia is very large, there are many election days every year.

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It was very interesting to note that the outermost regions reject these people sent from Moscow. Putin saw that some governors started to pursue independent policies, and it was difficult for the regime to control him, so he was removed from office. The Kremlin then put forward its own candidate in the elections, but both the local population and even the local press announced that the person sent may be good. Still, the population voted against him because Putin sent him. It is they who can express that opinion.

Is that enough for a bigger change? We are coming back to that one-man vertical and the fact that the repressive measures are very strong.

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Coming back to the current context, Ukraine has long been a splinter for Putin. From the Orange Revolution to Euromaidan. He was haunted by the fear of a repetition of this in Russia. It is also a psychological moment to show that, lo and behold, there are fascists and so on. Today, when we talk about the war, it gives the impression to the Russians that it is saving the Donbas.

But you have to understand that it seems to a large part of society that that may be the case. And this thinking comes from much earlier. For example, when we talk about exile, which is a very painful subject for us. This was also evident in discussions with some Russian intellectuals, writers and scientists. They do not understand. They say that perhaps it was necessary at the time. This is the answer to why, in Russia, the reactions to what is happening in Ukraine are not what we would like.

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-So are the Russian people collectively responsible for the war in Ukraine? For Putin and his regime being what it is today?

From today’s perspective, the people are responsible. That sense of nationhood is very strong. For example, when the occupation of Crimea was celebrated in Moscow, I went out to see what was happening on the streets. There was an enthusiastic crowd. They were marching down the Tver Boulevard, chanting, men, women, wearing medals, shouting that ‘we shall overcome’. What will you defeat?

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I wonder whether our people would go to such a demonstration. I think not. There was a huge crowd of people who were caught up in euphoria. Society, too, is responsible for what has happened and is happening now. However, there are still people left in Russia who, even underground, resist the regime and risk their lives. However, they are not that many.

-Can we then expect any change in Russia if a large part of society is driven by a sense of greatness, caught up in euphoria when an event such as the occupation of Crimea occurs?

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We can, as the rallies in Russia in 2018 and 2019 show. These were large masses of dissatisfied people, and the protests grew to hundreds of thousands. That is why the regime feels fear. However, those power structures are so deeply rooted that it is extremely difficult to dislodge the regime. Putin set up the National Guard after Crimea, which is subordinate only to him. It is above the police and carries out special tasks. These repressive structures are very large if the public tries to do anything.

Fear is quite high. For example, I recently saw the editor of Dodž television saying, with tears in her eyes, that there is a large staff, they have small children, and she is afraid that the word ‘war’ might slip out on the air instead of ‘special operation’. If the word “war” gets through, she faces 15 years in prison. People are intimidated.

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-Especially now, the question is often asked about how long the Putin regime will last. Have you answered this question for yourself?

I once just led a discussion with a similar title. When it comes to the transformation of power, Russia is in a very difficult situation. When there are effective and capable authorities, it is a smoother transition of power. They have influence, there is preparation, there are election staffs, there are nominations, there are deliberations, and so on and so on. And now there is suspicion and there is speculation about what is going to happen. There is a certain fear.

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If the same people remain in power, I doubt that Putin would choose a successor who would be very innovative, respected and popular in society. Let us remember how he himself was chosen. He was partly chosen because he was such a grey personality who might not stand out. But we can see that that grey personality had other talents. That experience in the KGB structure had its influence. He has no scruples about going to war, continuing terrorist activities, about killing.

Today, it is difficult to predict how long Putin’s regime will survive. When one man’s vertical breaks down, radical forces emerge very often, as was partly the case in Afghanistan.

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But Putin is preparing for longevity. This is evidenced, for example, by an article by one of his advisers, Vladislav Surkov, which appeared in 2019 and was entitled ‘The Long Putin State’. He said that Putinism has become so entrenched and acceptable that even if Putin is gone, Putinism must be taken over, or Russia will collapse.

As political experts have repeatedly said, the most realistic route to regime change must come from the same power, security and military structures if they express dissatisfaction. But public opinion would also be important.

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However, I see the faces of the people in Putin’s entourage, and I find it strange. That and the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. He used to organise meetings with us. Lavrov speaks foreign languages, and he is educated. I myself do not know how it is possible to be so accommodating. How can one adapt to what is happening in this way? Is this personal career so precious, this well-being before what is happening in the world…

-At the beginning of our conversation, you said that you had met Putin several times. What do you remember of those meetings with Putin?

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First of all, the lateness aspect. He was 35 minutes late in submitting his letters of appointment. That is probably not enough because others have had to wait several hours for him (laughs). And there is never the word ‘sorry’.

On the surface, he seems to be unconfident, but he is trying to show, through his communication and conversation, that Russia is big, that it has to be reckoned with, and that if it is not reckoned with, it will be reckoned with.

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We had a short conversation about Lithuania when the letters of distinction were presented. He called for more contact between Russia and Lithuania. Public opinion is very important to him. How much he is supported, how much he is respected in the world.

He is a personality who, on the one hand, seems very brave. Still, on the other hand, he is a very vulnerable person who is very much concerned about international public opinion.

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-Joe Biden, when he was still Vice-President of the United States, when he met Putin, said that he could not see the soul in his eyes. You, too, looked into Putin’s eyes. Did you see a soul there?

Not really.

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