Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Lilia Shevtsova said that Russia, as it currently stands, will continue to endanger neighbouring states (including the Baltic States), and that there is little hope that the current “Russian matrix” will change.
– What situation has the Kremlin found itself in in terms of domestic and international policy?
– This question must be looked at from a broader geopolitical context. What sort of moment not just the Kremlin finds itself in, but the entire world as well including the West.
I’d call the current moment a historic pause, during which the West, as a civilisation including Europe and the USA, has lost its trajectory. It’s like a boat that has lost its heading and is traveling in circles. Illiberal states, of which Russia is the most active, aggressive and dynamic, are trying to use this pause to fill the geopolitical vacuum that arose as the West stopped moving and began trying to find a path to move forward.
This situation is very dangerous, somewhat more dangerous than the Cold War years. There were rules to the game then which we don’t have now. Not just because they were destroyed by Vladimir Putin, but because the West has lost its ambition, enthusiasm, and ability to respect these principles.
We’ve found ourselves in a historic pause that has significantly affected those countries that have been trying to play by the game’s clear-cut rules. With Europe gripped by a crisis, the EU doesn’t know how to deal with a host of problems, doesn’t know which way to go, and so on. For the first time in a long time, the USA has withdrawn into its shell and is trying to renounce its role as a global leader.
However, it is becoming clear that the world is not yet ready to live without some sort of stimulating force, without a state that could guarantee a certain order, without a state playing police officer – that may have made many mistakes but also had normal values. This situation, in turn, provokes other states – Russia, Iran, China (these are the largest and most disposed to make noise) – to test the West’s endurance and see where the red line actually is. This situation is very dangerous. There are no international organisations that could force states to follow certain principles, norms or agreements – the realm of international law has been destroyed.
In this context, we see a situation where Putin is essentially waging two wars. One of them is the unannounced war with Ukraine, which ended with the dubious and unimplemented Minsk agreements. The second war is the Kremlin’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, without any prospects for a successful exit. Another confrontation is possible between Russia and Turkey.
In this situation, Russia is continuing to pressure the West. The Kremlin is telling the West, and first and foremost the US, that it will sit down at the negotiation table, but only if the Kremlin’s rules are agreed to. On the eve of its elections, the US is forced to engage in, at the very least, tactical negotiations with Putin on a ceasefire in Syria, which cannot currently happen due to the large number of players involved.
The situation is truly paradoxical, On the one hand, Russia and the US have begun negotiations, the Normandy four are negotiating on Ukraine as they extend sanctions while many of their colleagues say that Putin has won. First, they deny Ukraine the opportunity to move closer to NATO and the EU. Second, Russia forced the US to sit down at the negotiating table with Syria.
We see tactical victories for the Kremlin won by using blackmail and the demand for relations according to their own rules. Putin succeeded in doing this but strategically Russia has clearly lost, because it has found itself in the position of a marginalised and isolated player. Russia truly remains alone, as even its allies have started eying it cautiously. They are prepared to remain in Russia’s orbit only for something in return. Can this be called cooperation?
It’s clear that the Eurasian world is as fragile as a cracked dish. The sanctions, together with falling oil prices, have strongly hit Russia’s economy and prospects. The sanctions are biting. They prevent Russia from re-crediting itself in foreign markets and working with Western energy companies that could provide it with the newest equipment. Also, Putin’s Russia is in war mode and has returned to a military matrix. Extracting itself from war will be very hard with Putin in control, and this matrix restricts opportunities for growth. Besides, war cannot ensure social stability.
– The latest figures show the Russian public’s support for Putin.
– This phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the support for Putin seems mad, and in many cases it is artificial, because we don’t understand the society they live in. It’s very difficult to find out what’s happening under the surface of a society that doesn’t believe in anything. This society is atomised and disappointed by everything. It has lost its development opportunities, so people have even stopped saving money – they live for today. There’s a second factor as well.
The Levada Center confirmed that every fourth Russian admits that they can’t tell the truth, so it would be hard to tell how many of them truly support Putin and how many just pretend to. These numbers don’t reflect reality, they reflect cognitive dissonance. This ambiguous situation cannot last long. Sooner or later, the people will understand that they are unhappy about their lives.
– What can the Kremlin, burdened by economic problems, currently offer the Russian people?
– Besides television zombification, attempts to partially control the economic situation, and avoid hurting tax payers’ and Russian citizens’ pockets, the Kremlin will use the same weapon as the Soviet government. To its limit. They will search for enemies within and without. This means the escalation of military rhetoric and attempts to strengthen Russia as a fortress to preserve its militaristic spirit and liquidate all possible discontented elements. So far, Russia has succeeded in this.
However, the Kremlin also understands that the military-patriotic rhetoric is slowly starting to lose its breath. It’s failing to turn people into zombies. Syria and Turkey have little effect on people’s mindsets. Therefore, domestic conditions must be manipulated. However, it’s hard to say how much residents will support this idea, how much they will band together in a campaign against a new enemy. Russia’s society is no longer Soviet.
Russians have become consumers and economic survival is important to them. Feeding their family, not ideas or ideologies, is what’s important to them. And when about 65% of respondents to a Levada Centre survey choose economy when asked whether Russia’s economic or military strength is more important to them, this serves as a sign that attempts to turn the people into zombies using military-patriotic narcotics will only have a short-term effect.
– You mentioned a ruined fortress. That fortress worries the Baltic States. Less now, but it still presents a danger which is the reason NATO is strengthening its forces in the region. Will this give the desired result, and will it guarantee security?
– As someone living in Moscow, I think that you should consider the fact that Russia has become a state that, in its current format, can survive by creating the image of a broken fortress. Until the Russian system is transformed (which probably won’t happen any time soon), the fortress-state with expansionist and revisionist goals will always present a threat and a challenge to its closest neighbours.
This system can become a danger to its neighbours by starting hybrid or hot wars, attempting to co-opt the elite, provoking the Baltic states’ Russian-speaking minorities, creating tension at its borders (by kidnapping border guards), or sending its aircraft into territorial waters – it’s not clear how, but it will never stop.
This system must constantly provoke domestic danger, create conflict situations and blackmail other states. So far, this blackmail has been a fairly effective measure. The West, which is your guarantee of safety, looks at it this way: we’d better not annoy Russia, so it’s better to calm it down.
On the other hand, even if the West protects you and forms mobile NATO forces that can move between separate countries to ensure the security of your borders, this will also boost the Russian system. I think that, as long as the Russian matrix exists, especially during this period of decline, the space surrounding Russia will still be war-like and fertile ground for threats for a long time yet.