Amidst the referendum in Greece, with Europe finding itself torn by confusion and contradictions, the renewal of hostilities in Ukraine and the Islamic State still running rampant in the Middle East, there is one man in Moscow who must be reveling looking at all this chaos – as chaos, especially a premeditated one, has long ago become his chief specialty. Divide et impera has become Putin and Russia’s chief strategy years ago and there is little doubt he has already moved his pawns, bishops and knights alike to suit his strategic interest best. It was Putin and Putin’s Russia we spoke about with Lilia Shevtsova, perhaps one of those few who can really assess and diagnose the symptoms of headache that Putin has become for the West.
“The Greek circus will have a devastating effect on the European project.”
We met at a discussion organized by Europe House Georgia, “World order in XXI century”, where the esteemed scholar and writer, now at Brookings Institution in U.S., was one of three speakers. Spirited and enthusiastic, she agreed to discuss the modern day Russia at length.
”Let’s start with Greece” I suggest. “What’s your take on the “No” referendum and its impact on the EU?”
“The Greek circus will have a devastating effect on the European project,” she replies. ”The “old” Europe now will have even less desire to open the EU doors for new members.
“Are links to Moscow realistic or possible?”
She disagrees. “Athens are still on board of the EU ship – they understand that Moscow can’t save Greece from defaulting. Thus, the Moscow-Athens axis will not work.”
“Iranian deal is very significant for Obama. He sees it as his legacy.”
What we both agree on is that Russia is doing whatever it can to undermine Europe from the inside, and the Greek rhetoric is another proof of that. Moscow is doing its best to deter the West from continuing sanctions and finally making an important step – supplying Ukraine with non-lethal weaponry, ambiguous terms notwithstanding. Whether the West will make that step remains an open question.
“Everything depends on the consensus of two capitals, Berlin and Washington,” she opines, skeptical of both:
“It seems to me that Americans would like Berlin to proceed with this decision because Obama is busy with other crises in the area that are far more important to him. By those, I mean Iran and Syria. Iranian deal is very significant for Obama. He sees it as his legacy.”
Berlin is no better, she believes, as Merkel and company will “never, ever support a decision like that.” Because, apparently, “they simply aren’t ready”.
“But at the same time a lot depends on whether Germany will close its eyes on “less important“ countries to help Ukranians,“ she adds, hinting towards recent NATO ministerial, where Lithuania seemingly came to a decision to support Ukraine with non-lethal weapons. “The most important things that Ukrainians need now are communication and drones. And the West could help Ukraine with that.”
“Moscow keeps the so called Trojan horses within Europe. Among them are Hungary, Slovakia, Italy and to some extent, Austria.”
Her optimism is not shared, however. There exist hard, bitter facts – countries that are major energy consumers are worried, Italian PM visits Moscow, where no head of a European state has been for a long time, Putin visits the Pope, EU negotiations with Greece start resembling a mutual blackmail and Great Britain braces itself for EU exit referendum. Europe looks all but united. “Are these the “people” who are going to stand up to Putin?” I ask.
“I have these doubts as well,” she nods. “Moscow has proven that it has tremendous tactical ability as well as financial and other kinds of pressure, such as gas to keep the so called Trojan horses within Europe. Among them are Hungary, Slovakia, Italy and to some extent, Austria. But despite the fact, all the countries are still together on the issue of sanctions. We never expected that Europe would achieve unity on the issue of sanctions.”
“I would personally prefer longer sanction lists, with inclusion of government members and propagandists.“
“Do sanctions work, however? Is the so-called “black list” working, for example? Russian oligarchs are what they are thanks to Putin, unlike Coca Cola and McDonalds or any other huge corporation of states, where such pressure would surely work. Has the West miscalculated this one?” I ask, getting an answer no EU diplomat would give.
”Regarding the list, it is simply a test to see in which direction to go,” she explains. “Of course, the lists that Americans and Europeans have composed are insufficient – they are very short and full of loopholes and double standards. I would personally prefer longer personal lists, with inclusion of government members and propagandists.“
However, it is hard to imagine sanctions becoming effective enough to really achieve their stated aim – territorial integrity of Ukraine. So they might drag on, and there are people already talking about the new cold war, the economic one.
“The previous cold war was a war between systems and ideologies. There is no systemic idea that Russia can offer the world and its own citizens. In comparison with mutual containment behind closed borders during the Cold War, now our borders are open,” she theorizes, saying that the new, “ransacking” Russian elite, heralded by the ilk of Abramovich and Usmanov, would not want Russia to turn into the next North Korea.
“If Russia continues to use the narrative of the “Russian World” and “We defend Russians”, Chechens would say “Okay, we are not with you, we aren’t Russians”. Same goes for Tatars. This will be the suicide of the Russian Federation.”
But Mr. Putin is not going to sit idly before dissent emerges – apparently, he’s got a cunning plan:
”Putin constantly tries to find an idea that would unite Russia, and the only one that still works is hatred for the U.S. And there is also a combination of Russia’s ethnic nationalism and imperialism… Quite a package!” she exclaims, visibly agitated. “If Russia continues to use the narrative of the “Russian World” and “We defend Russians”, Chechens would say “Okay, we are not with you, we aren’t Russians”. Same goes for Tatars. This will be the suicide of the Russian Federation.”
”Putins ideological borscht combines ingredients that are totally incompatible – Russian ethnic nationalism and “Russia for the Russians” on one hand and Russia as the Big Brother multicultural country on the other. “
And then we can’t come to terms again. Is it true? Does Putin’s Russia really lack an ideology? What about them posing as modern paladins of Christianity? There is clearly much demand and appeal for that worldwide, including Georgia. Moscow, the Third Rome and its cultural war against everything Western. This narrative has shown incredible tenacity and found followers not just in post-Soviet space, but also among followers of different political ideologies worldwide that share distaste towards neoliberal values. Abovementioned Chechens also fall into this category. So this makeshift ideology or lack thereof is playing into Putin’s hands… – I stumble and stutter.
”I call that a borscht,” she interrupts. ”Putins ideological borscht. It combines ingredients that are totally incompatible – Russian ethnic nationalism and “Russia for the Russians” on one hand and Russia as the Big Brother multicultural country on the other. It pursues very aggressive economic liberalism, while being a paternalistic state. It paints itself as viciously anti-Western, but then Putin goes and tell BP that they are partners.
In fact, it is a new type of ideological borscht that erases systemic ideology, instead trying to draw in people with all kinds of views. It’s an ideological simulacrum – a fake aimed at demoralizing and confusing the population. People sit in front of their TV and get systematically demoralized. It’s all part of Putin’s hybrid war that he wages on ideas as well. Once only a barren wasteland is left, Putin will be the sole united force…”
“Young people, with open borders and internet, they will never exchange used, outdated Toyotas and Mercedeses for Ladas. And when they get forced to, they’ll take to the streets.”
The internet is rife with tales, theories and even research on similarities between Julius Caesar and Emperor Vladimus, as he is often called there. One particularly vivid example was Putin’s handling of Sevastopol and Crimea bases – demoralizing enemy troops, offering them to join Russian forces, go back home as civilians, or go back to Ukraine. It is a tactic Caesar used to great effect in Gaellic wars – the warriors of heathen tribes, known for their viciousness, lost their fighting spirit. They knew that if they retreated or surrendered, they would live another day. And there is this Rome-like popularity as well – Roman rulers would not hold a candle to Putin’s popularity today.
“Putin would probably like this historical analogy,” she says, clearly amused. “But to be frank, I see more resemblance to Emperor Nero’s Rome than that of Julius Caesar’s. I would compare Putin to the Roman leaders in the time of Roman Empire’s agony. While Caesar’s Rome was the Rome of ascendancy, Putin’s Rome is the one of decay. The regime in Russia shows all signs of agony.”
”And the popularity is ephemeral,” she adds. “I constantly compare this strange 89 percent popularity with the Soviet times, when the communists had 99.9 percent support. Putin understands that all too well; his populism lives through handouts and bribes and he is quickly running out of resources. In the state of an economic crisis, pensions cannot be raised, the wages have dropped by ten percent, Russian budget lost a huge chunk over the last 4 months and food on Russians’ refrigerator shelves are quickly dwindling. For the time being, he compensates for that by creating an image of an enemy. For older people, Putin embodies the state – if he goes down in flames, everything will collapse. But the young people, with open borders and internet, are not going to live like that; they will never exchange used, outdated Toyotas and Mercedeses for Ladas. And when they get forced to, they’ll take to the streets.”
“So where is Brutus, then?” I ask. “Medvedev is clearly not filling the shoes. Will it take another Putin to take down this one?”
“We should not be guessing who Brutus is, we shouldn’t be looking for a person to fill that role – it could be anyone. And most probably it will be a mediocre guy who satisfies everybody. What we should look for is change, the ability to build an alternative. But this change cannot come from the inside without external help. If the pressure is systemic, staunch and decisive it will eventually bring about fragmentation of the current rule, just like it happened in Kyiv. This is the change you need, the transition, the real Brutus. It won’t come today, since current Russian political landscape is a desert, but it will come,” she concludes, and we wrap this up.
We talked exactly for one hour – a rare case of a long chat not growing stale and boring.