Lilia Shevtsova: Russians are weary of living in the Besieged Castle

Lilija Shevtsova. Riga Conference 2019
Lilija Shevtsova. Riga Conference 2019

The Lithuania Tribune team spoke to Lilia Shevtsova at the Riga Conference on October 12. We talked about US-Russian relations in the Trump era, Russia’s armament efforts, its intentions toward the EU and what future changes we can expect in Russia, particularly following the eventual end of Vladimir Putin’s tenure as Russia’s head of state. Read the interview conducted by Ruslanas Iržikevičius, Krisztián Jójárt and Jurgis Vedrickas.

I happened to read one of your articles on the American Interest and I’m curious because I also read an analysis by Dmitri Trenin, who had an interesting conclusion that the reason Putin likes Trump is not that he favours US interests or that he will change US policy toward Russia in any way, but because he has the same approach to international relations [19th century realpolitik] as Putin does and this favours Russia because they can play based on the same rules. And Putin thinks that Eastern Europe is not the US’ focus under Trump, which leaves more room for manoeuvre for Russia. So is Trump really favourable for Russia?

Dmitri Trenin is a very sophisticated, experienced political analyst and he would probably write a new article today, where he would contradict what he said earlier. Maybe Putin had some obsession with Trump or liking of Trump before, several years ago. It’s possible – we’re not Putin’s shrinks and can only guess. Right, I’m not sure we have much material for our guesses. But if we look at what Trump’s America is doing now and its relationship with Russia, we will probably conclude that Trump is the worst possible US president for Russia and the Kremlin’s interests.

Firstly. Trump is breaking the rules of the international scene. The way he kicks over the chessboard breaks the windows, etc. Hence, this means that Russia cannot be unpredictable anymore. Russia could be unpredictable when it knew what America would say and how America would react. Trump has stolen the Kremlin’s ace, the trump card from the Russian pocket.

Secondly. Trump’s primary slogan “America First” means that America ruins the global liberal order that America created after the Second World War. America was the worldwide moderator and made more or less equal rules of the game for the whole world. Now Trumpian America is going to harass the world, even its allies. Now Washington is ready to betray its allies like it is doing with the Kurds in Syria. America could be arrogant and bullish. This “change of winds” frightens Russia. Until recently, America tried to embrace Russia without humiliating Russia too much. The “America First” policy does not leave any space for this attitude any more.

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Thirdly. We continue to argue about the causes of Trump’s “sympathy” for Putin. But its results are precise – this sympathy has consolidated (For the first time so!) the American establishment on an anti-Russian basis. It never happened even during the Soviet Union. The anti-Russian consolidation is present across the political spectrum. Russia is an enemy of the US Congress, of both parties – Republicans and Democrats. This never happened before. Meanwhile, Trump has no power, no drive, no leverage to neutralise and control the zeal of the US congress when the US legislature is thinking about a new sanction package against Russia. 

So what are the benefits of the Trump policy regarding Russia? We see the law of unintended consequences when the outcomes contradict the intentions. I would, in Dmitri’s place, write a new article refuting his previous assessment. What we can watch in reality is the US president who creates formidable problems for Russia.

Trenin argued that they speak the same language now.

Maybe they speak the same language, but the consequences are dire for Russia. And the more they speak the same language, the worse it is for Russia. And for Trump too! This is the irony of the situation. Their summit in Helsinki only strengthened the desire of the US Democrats to expand sanctions against Russia and find new arguments in favour of Trump’s impeachment.

It seems that Russia is preparing for total war. It looks like they are preparing for something big with military expenditure and such. Another pattern that can be observed is disrupting the EU project because, in my thinking, the European Union is a more significant threat to Russia than NATO, they don’t want to admit that. Don’t you think that they are playing with fire here because the EU was created for peace in Europe and if the Russians will be instrumental in destroying the EU? Consequently, the European nations begin arguing, and wars begin. Will Russia suffer from it much more than it is suffering now? From wars that might start happening after the EU collapses with some Russian help? Is that short-sighted?

You raised two questions. The first about total war and Russia’s military expenditure and the second about Russia ruining the EU project. 

Let’s start with the war issue. Here we are dealing with Russia’s traditional paradigm of existence. Russia has always existed, survived and reproduced itself, even before the Soviet Union, within the war paradigm. Russia always existed between wars: starting one war, then going through interregnum (a pause) and preparing for another war. The war paradigm has always been a means to legitimise the Kremlin’s power and to subjugate the population.

This model of the rule is in our genes. Russia’s militarisation, “military camp” consciousness, identity through the search for the enemy and creating the “Russia-Fortress” has been Russia’s way of existence throughout the centuries. Hence the constant war and patriotic rhetoric and all these Kremlin projects with ballistic missiles, conventional and non-conventional weapons at the expense of education, health and living standards of the population.

At the same time, we already live in the 21st century. The tradition still exists, but a new reality emerges. We have new segments of the elite that have been personally integrated into the West and are shifting between Russia and the West. They are earning money in Russia and are quite comfortable living in the West. They hardly want any real confrontation with liberal civilisation. They hardly want any kind of war. But war rhetoric and militarisation continue to be their means of survival: “You have to respect us, we have a missile behind our backs!”

Moreover, the Russian political elites have built a somewhat successful operational policy – “to escalate to de-escalate”. Its goal is to force the West to agree to some kind of a deal with Russia. Hence, militarisation and the war paradigm, even rhetorical, has become for the Kremlin a political tool.

However, we see political dialectics. The majority of the Russian population, including the elite, do not want any war. They do not want any confrontation with the outside world. They are weary of living in the Besieged Castle. Putin and the Kremlin understand these new moods, and they have to tread a thin line between the traditional war paradigm and the new prevalent feelings of Russia. 

This doesn’t mean that there will not be future incidents with Russian jets going through the ocean to Great Britain or circling the Baltics. Or Russian submarines are hiding close to Swedish shores. Or, for instance, the Russians trying to seize an oil field in Syria. When we are dealing with incompatible systems, we can’t exclude hazardous situation. But at least now the Kremlin is afraid to cross the red line that could bring apocalyptic consequences. True, we all can have a different perception of what the “red line” is.

Russia has always been testing where the red lines are. One has to admit that seeing a soft Western underbelly, the Kremlin often made another step and went further. Western emphasis on dialogue and negotiation has always produced in powers that rely on machismo and raw strength an illusion of weakness of the opponent. Today the Kremlin, even with its sabre-rattling, has no wish for a real confrontation. No desire, no longing, no urge. But incidents can happen. That is why we desperately need mechanisms of “de-confliction”.

Secondly, on Russia and the EU. I believe this is true that the Kremlin wants to undermine and discredit the European Union. I guess it is an exaggeration that Russia can ruin the EU. Of course, the Kremlin has been successfully using the “Trojan Horses” – the states in the EU that want to be friends with Russia. The Kremlin has been playing artfully, using the EU’s fragmentation. But I don’t think that Russia has the resources and power to force the EU to collapse. 

It seems that the EU has all the capacity to undermine itself. I don’t think that the root cause for Brexit was Russia. I don’t believe that Russia is responsible for the right-wing and left-wing populism in France, Germany and other European states. Russia, with its meagre, shrinking resources can add a little spice into the batter but hardly could become a decisive force in influencing the European trajectory. 

However, there is a funny side to the Russian attempts to seduce Europe. Often the Kremlin is wasting to buy this love, but it does not bring much. One example. We know that Putin and the Hungarian leader Orban have enmity for each other. Orban wants to build a nuclear power plant in Hungary using Russian money. But despite his free ride, he continues to participate in the European sanction regime against Russia. 

Free.

Yes. Yes, Russia gives money, builds the nuclear plant and Orban enjoys it. Russia sells to Turkey S-400 and S-300, financing the deal. But we don’t see much support for Russia on the part of Erdogan. Thus, you, Europeans, can’t be complacent, but we shouldn’t over exaggerate Russia’s decisive role in European developments. Russia could be somewhat effective in undermining the EU’s unity and European norms. When the Kremlin sees the weakness of the Western establishment, its cynicism and readiness to be corrupted, it is ready to use it. The Russian elite has succeeded in building a fantastically successful and influential laundry machine in the West. But this hardly was possible without eagerness on the part of the Western and European establishment to take part in this project and be paid for their services. It was impossible without the help of Schröder, Chirac, Blair… The list of European kleptocrats is long!

One known case from the region close to you. The Scandinavian banks – Danskebank and Swedbank – who laundered dirty Russian billions of dollars in Latvia and Estonia. Thus, we all have to assess the Russian role in Europe, its power and strengths. And to what extent the Kremlin’s advantage is the result of European weakness.

Last year we spoke to Arkady Moshes at this conference, and I was enlightened about something that seems evident now – that Putin is only part of the system and he’s not the key figure, so to say. But nonetheless, whom would you say is moving in the direction of becoming a successor, a replacement for him though?

The most straightforward answer to your question about Putin’s successor would be – I don’t know. Hardly anyone in Russia knows. I doubt Putin himself knows at the moment. The system that we in Russia have – one-person rule – can exist and reproduce itself only under one condition. Here is this condition: the legitimacy of the regime is based on the conviction that there’s no one else. The moment Putin gives a hint that Medvedev or anyone else can replace him even in the distant future – his power is gone. He becomes a paper king. He becomes a mirage. All the elites will run to the future leader. Thus, nobody in Russia will know the name of a successor until the last moment, and nobody knows when the last moment will come.

Meanwhile, all these guesses we, Russians, offer to the outside observers regarding who will replace Putin, are based on our imagination. Sometimes our impaired vision. Or on our lack of readiness to discuss other Russian problems. Anyone standing at the Kremlin door or close to the repressive buttons can find himself on Putin’s throne. Unpredictability and suspense – this is the legacy Putin is going to leave. 

His legacy is chaotic and pathetic. Even the elite is tired of the leader who had occupied the Kremlin for 20 years. We have to think not about who will replace him, but what are the future scenarios? There will be a tough fight among various camps and clans. Putin’s clan of friends will try to preserve the current merger between property and power and their control over tremendous economic resources. The rest of the elite would want redistribution of power and property. It will be a bloody fight. Both options are still possible – the continuation of this arrogant, repressive regime personalised in some else, and a different regime that will try to establish some rules for the sake of its survival. We have to prepare for cataclysmic developments. We in Russia are already preparing for that.

To respond to something, though. When we spoke to Mr Moshes, the impression I had last year (and perhaps not too much has changed), the impression I was left with was that he was somewhat more pessimistic about the willingness of Russian society to accept the current status quo. More along the lines of “the regime has the resources to continue going for a long time, and the public won’t push for changes”.

Yes, the regime has resources to continue. Arkady is right. At the same time, when looking from the outside, one apparently might not quite feel what is happening in Khabarovsk, Yekaterinburg or Archangelsk. I do not understand what is going beyond the Urals. From my recent trips, I am getting the impression that yes, so far, there is a lack of desperation in society to change the situation. The current status quo is based on cowardice and a lack of courage among the elites. But at the same time, there is a growing feeling among the people that there is a need for change. About 70 per cent of Russians support the idea of change! It is a matter of time when this feeling and need for change will become desperate.

Not yet, not this year, not next year, maybe not in five years, but we are talking about a visible trend. We see people taking to the streets in hundreds of Russian cities every day. We see people in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, who voted against representatives of ruling United Russia. We see rallies of protest in small towns that were until recently sleeping quietly. Around 60 thousand took part in demonstrations against falsified elections in Moscow. True, we can state the local protests. At the moment, we don’t see a powerful tide. But we all, including the Kremlin, are sure that it is approaching. The fundamental problem is: society is ready for change, while the elites are not. So in a historical perspective, the grapes of anger and wrath with growing. When will the time for a tsunami come? No one knows. But we have reason to talk about Russia entering a stage of preparation. This gives us hope, but fear of the unpredictable too. 

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