Russian analyst Piontkovsky: Putin will not shy away from nuclear blackmail

Andrey Piontkovsky
DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Piontkovsky, who recently visited Vilnius, is an outspoken critic of Putin’s government, that he has described as “soft totalitarian regime”, and author of several books on Russian politics.

In an interview to DELFI, Piontkovsky says that Putin will not stop in Ukraine, but it is at this stage that the Western leaders must do all they can to dissuade him from going further. And go further he will, according to the Russian analyst.

Eyes on the Baltics

Russia has indicated it wants to prosecute Lithuanians who refused to serve in the Soviet army. Russia kidnaps an Estonian special police officer. Moscow expresses concern about alleged violations of the rights of Russian-speakers in the Baltics. All these incidents that took place over a rather short period of time indicate, according to Piontkovsky, that the Kremlin has set its eyes on the Baltic states.

“You must realize that events in Ukraine are part of a global project, one that Putin has, as a matter of fact, disclosed in his notorious Crimea annexation speech. In it, he extrapolated the “Russian world” concept. It was in general quite astonishing – many experts, including myself, have noted that it was a rewrite of Adolf Hitler‘s Sudetenland speech. […] A dispersed people, reclaiming historic lands, national traitors – all these are Hitler’s terms. I think some speech writer must have taken it and translated into Russian.

“Putin has declared the Kremlin’s right to defend not just Russian citizens, but all ethnic Russians, irrespective of where they live. Moreover, he indicated his next step after Crimea. Namely, ‘Novorossya’ (New Russia), which was how he called eight regions in Ukraine. Further, clearly, will be the Baltic states, starting with Latvia and Estonia that have sizeable Russian-speaking populations,” Piontkovsky said.

How far is Putin prepared to go to take the Baltic states? Piontkovsky thinks the Russian president will not stop unless he is forced to.

“Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He wants to make up for it in the 21st.

“I am not comparing Putin to Hitler. If Putin were Hitler, we wouldn’t be speaking here and I wouldn’t be planning to go back to Moscow tomorrow. Although severe repressions could start at any moment.

“He will go as far as he is allowed. Everything will depend on the outcome of the Ukraine clash. If Putin wins – he will subject Ukraine’s politicians to his will, suppress Kiev, block the European direction for good. The Baltics will be next,” the Russian political analyst says.

Nuclear blackmail

The situation of the Baltic states is unlike that of Ukraine. The three countries, which were the first to secede from the Soviet Union, are part of NATO now. Piontkovsky believes that, because of this fact, Putin will play with much more serious weapons than just the “little green men”.

“As long as Putin is preoccupied with Ukraine, you can feel relatively safe. But you must explain to your Western friends, who are rather sluggish in aiding Ukraine, that they still have a chance to stop Putin with exclusively economic and political measures. No one is expecting a military involvement. By the way, the first thing that Barack Obama and [NATO Secretary-General] Anders Fogh Rasmussen said six months ago was that military involvement was out of the question, because Ukraine was not a NATO member. This excuse won’t work when the ‘little green men’ come to organize a referendum in Narva [an Estonian town with 87 percent Russian-speaking population]. The West will have to go to war then. War against a nuclear country which is likely to use nuclear blackmail,” Piontovsky says.

The Kremlin will use nuclear threats as a weapon in its Baltic campaign, Piontkovsky believes. “It’s a nightmarish scenario. The only way to prevent it is to crush Putin’s project in Ukraine, where it can still be stopped with economic and political measures.”

“The ‘Russian world’ is a dangerous concept. it can lead not just to a world war, but to a nuclear world war. Economically, Russia lags behind the West, its conventional arsenal is no match for that of NATO and the US. So if Putin is to win this war, he will employ nuclear blackmail, hoping to scare the West into backing down,” Piontkovsky speculates.

“Do you recall the phrase from the 1930s: ‘Are you ready to die for Danzig?’ One of my recent articles is titled ‘Are you ready to die for Narva?’ Most Europeans and Americans will say ‘no’. Putin is ready to raise the stakes, much more than the West. He’s already gone all-in. If he loses domestically over Ukraine, he will be overthrown,” Piontkovsky believes.

All eyes on Berlin

“Unless the West wants a nuclear stand-off with Putin over Estonia, he must be stopped now. And that’s still quite realistic,” he adds.

At the moment, however, Western countries are reluctant to back the Baltics and Poland on stopping the Kremlin. Exceptions, according to Piontkovsky, include Sweden – whose Foreign Minister Carl Bildt stands side by side with Poland’s Sikorski – and the United Kingdom. He adds that Berlin could be a game changer. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been nicknamed “Frau Ribbentrop” in Ukraine for her leniency towards Moscow.

“The problem is just one country, Germany. If the coalition [of the Baltics, Poland, Sweden and the UK] included Germany, you could stop worrying about what Slovakia or Cyprus say. For different reasons, Slovakia and Cyprus are completely corrupt.

“The main country is Germany and the central figure, obviously, is Mrs Merkel. True, Ukrainians call her ‘Frau Ribbentrop’, but her position has also evolved after every conversation with Putin. She must understand what’s going on, she grew up in East Germany. She knows how the system works, what Stasi and the KGB were. One would expect better judgement from her,” according to Piontkovsky.

These are the arguments, he says, that should be used in an effort to persuade Germany – stopping Moscow now or risking military confrontation.

Putin will not go away democratically

The Russian political analyst underscores that Putin will not hand over power in a democratic manner.

“Authoritarian regimes, like Putin’s, do not end with elections and democratic procedures. As we’ve seen in the Middle East, they get overthrown in uprisings,” says Piontkovsky.

He adds that an uprising in Moscow is not unimaginable, providing that Western sanctions can turn Russian elites against Putin.

“They are billionaires. They sustain colossal losses, at least in terms of capital. What’s at stake is not just money – their lifestyle, homes in the West, children, etc. Obviously, they are irritated. They start asking – why should we put up with this for one man’s ambitions, someone who needs it to keep his power for life? After what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, Putin’s resolve is to never quit his post. For that, he needs a myth to feed to his nation and legitimize his power. The ‘Russian world’ programme is handy in that it is potentially limitless,” Piontkovsky says.

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