20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia introduces a series of interviews with Russian and Western experts on the situation in Russia, its relationship with the West, and the future of its political system. In the first article of the series, Leonid Martynyuk interviews prominent Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky. Last month marked the first anniversary of the Maidan revolution that launched a chain of events leading to a complete change of relationship between Russia and the West. Martynyuk and Piontkovsky discussed Putin’s plans for Ukraine, Western sanctions, and conditions for the regime’s fall.



Leonid Martynyuk: There are two basic points of view on Putin’s military strategy. First: Putin engineered a military conflict in Donbass in order to make the world forget the annexation of Crimea. Second: Putin needs the territory of southwestern Ukraine or maybe even more: the whole of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Baltic countries. What is your opinion?

Andrei Piontkovsky: The current stage of war with Ukraine started in the summer of 2013, when Putin began to close down the borders, twisting Yanukovich’s arms, blackmailing him, and then bribing him to prevent him from signing the agreement of association with the European Union. To Putin, any movement by Ukraine in the European direction was fatal, for its success would have been contagious for Russian society. Like, if Ukrainians can, why can’t we? Putin achieved his goal, and in November 2013, Yanukovich refused to get closer to the EU. For that, Putin gave him huge credit and was quite calm about it. But everything changed after the successful anticriminal revolution in Kiev in February, which appeared to be insufferable for Putin. From being just theoretical, the threat to his regime became quite practical. Since then, he set himself a goal to crush the anticriminal revolution by any and all means—by eliminating Ukraine, meaning splitting it into parts.

L.M.: So annexing Crimea was just the first step?

A.P.: Many things were cleared up in Putin’s speech of March 18, 2014, which he gave on the day of the official joining of Crimea to Russia. In that speech, not only did Putin formally justify the annexation, it essentially was a remake of Hitler’s speech on the Sudetenland in the Reichstag. For the first time in Russian or Soviet political language, there were used such expressions as “separated nation” and “gathering of historical Russian lands.” These are classical concepts of German foreign policy of the 1930s. An expression “national traitors” has never been used either in the Soviet or in the Russian lexicon. Soviet terminology was “enemies of the people,” but “national traitors” is a direct translation from German.

In that speech, Putin declared his right and even a holy duty to protect not only Russian citizens—I underline this principal moment, for any state is obliged to protect its citizens—but also ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers, and, in later interpretations, also all citizens of the former Soviet Union, Russian Empire, and their descendants, united under the conception of the so-called “Russian world.” This is his integral conception, which has become an analogue to the Third Reich. The similarity with Hitler’s ideologemes was so obvious and scandalous that the famous Kremlin propagandist Andranik Migranyan even tried—rather awkwardly, though—to help him out. He said, “Well, Putin really does speak like Hitler and acts like Hitler, but like a good Hitler. For there were two Hitlers: one Hitler before 1939 was very good, and he cared about the interests of the German people, and then there was the bad Hitler who started the world war.” Let’s agree with Migranyan’s definition: “Putin is like a good Hitler.”

L.M.: Putin’s next step was Novorossiya [New Russia]?

A.P.: Indeed, Putin didn’t limit himself to theoretical statements about the “Russian world,” having immediately set the next goal: Novorossiya. This is eight or, in another interpretation, twelve Ukrainian regions that were “illegally given to Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s,” according to his words. The goal was rather serious: Novorossiya should spread up to Transnistria. The task of supplying Crimea was solved simultaneously, although the main issue remained the widening of the “Russian world.”

Project “Novorossiya” failed spectacularly. Raiders, special forces, were sent to all regions of southwestern Ukraine, but they didn’t gain locals’ support anywhere except some districts of two regions: Donetsk and Lugansk. And this was the first serious defeat. When he failed to grab all of Novorossiya, Putin declared that he stood for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He didn’t want to annex and take responsibility for two depressed regions (half of Donetsk and Lugansk). He needed them now only as a carcinoma inside Ukraine that would spread chaos and instability and block the European development of the country. So for now, Putin’s plan has returned to the goals of mid-2013: to prevent Ukraine from liberating itself from post-Soviet criminal dons.

L.M.: Following this logic, Kazakhstan, for instance, isn’t threatened by anything—it also has a dictatorship with a small group of people who head the country.

A.P.: There was no threat in 2013, when Putin had a pragmatic goal—to prevent changes in those kleptocratic systems. But the concept of the “Russian world” was taken rather seriously by Putin himself, and by a large part of the political class. It took precedence over the pragmatic goal. Moreover, as part of that goal he envisioned opportunities for an ideology that would justify his life-long government. In order to be effective, any authoritarian regime needs not only violence, but also an ideology that can be accepted by a sufficient part of the population—just like Hitler’s ideology in Germany or communism in the Soviet Union. The “Russian world” became an ideology to justify his power. Both [Belarusian president Alexander] Lukashenko and [Kazakh president Nursultan] Nazarbaev understand this quite well, for their relationships with Moscow immediately worsened.

The concept of the “Russian world” threatens all territories with a Russian population. For example, it demands a change in the state borders of two NATO members: Latvia and Estonia. It is a challenge to the whole West. Putin’s propaganda doesn’t even try to conceal it. Instead, each day we receive explanations from TV: “This isn’t a war with Ukraine—what is Ukraine? It is a war with the USA in the Ukrainian territory. It is a war of the ‘Russian world’ against the Anglo-Saxon world.”

L.M.: In response to the annexing of Crimea and the starting of war in Donbass, Western countries initiated economic sanctions against Russia. How just are those sanctions, in your opinion?

A.P.: Sanctions are the West’s only tool. Putin has used a far more powerful weapon—nuclear blackmail, in the first place. Hysteria has been whipped up for a whole year. The West is being intimidated with the possibility of [Russia] using a nuclear weapon. And the West understands this threat. Moreover, at the NATO summit in September 2014, it reacted to it by making a decision to place small [military] contingents, including American soldiers, in the territories of the Baltic states and Poland. There are about 100 to 200 servicemen there at this moment. From the military point of view, that’s nothing. But politically and psychologically, their presence plays an important role. It means that if “polite green men” appear in those states’ territories, Russia will automatically get involved in a full-scale war with the USA. This is what Putin would like to escape by his nuclear blackmail.

The central question is, What will fall quicker: Putin’s regime or Russia itself? The longer this agony goes on, the fewer chances there are for Russia to stay within its current borders in the future.

As for the sanctions per se, they are quite a minor tool, and the West uses them comparatively gently. Basically, they are a refusal to give cheap credits to Russian companies. Even we, people in the opposition who have repeatedly criticized the Russian economic system as thieving and incapable of development, didn’t expect the economy to be so dull, incompetent, and vulnerable. This is clearly seen in the downfall of the money market, growing unemployment, and inflation. For ordinary people, the biggest hazard came not from the sanctions, but from Putin’s idiotic contra-sanctions, which prohibited the importation of foodstuffs from European countries, causing a growth in prices for groceries.

L.M.: Which sanctions are most effective in the sense of controlling Putin’s aggressive foreign policy—those against whole industries, cutting Russia off from SWIFT [the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications], prohibition of the export of some goods, or personal sanctions against key actors of Putin’s regime?

A.P.: U.S. financial intelligence is aware of all accounts and assets of the highest Russian authorities, including Putin. They might be not marked “Putin Vladimir Vladimirovich” in their documents, but they know which assets he benefits from. David Cohen, who recently was a deputy of the U.S. Treasury Department and now is a deputy of the CIA’s [Central Intelligence Agency’s] director (how very telling), openly stated this during a CNN broadcast. He has gathered information and is already ready to act. After articles and books written by Belkovsky, Golyshev, Nemtsov, Milov, and your humble narrator, the scale of Putin’s wealth is more or less clear. Experts estimate it to be somewhere around $200 billion. Just a simple unveiling of the names of these account holders might be of great importance right now, especially if this information was carefully presented by the American financial intelligence establishment with all the details and data about the structure of those assets. After seeing this, any person who uses the Internet—and that is about half of Russia’s population already—would finally understand who is our leader.

Cutting Russia off from SWIFT, a partial or complete embargo on energy products, arrests, and the freezing of accounts would be the next stages of sanctions. These are very serious economic and political measures, and the West isn’t rushing to take them. But if Putin violates the latest Minsk agreements, he’s guaranteed to see a toughening of sanctions, including denouncement of his personal financial activities and the sale of modern defensive weapons (radars, drones, Javelins) to Ukraine.

L.M.: How do you feel about the fact that the USA might begin to ship defensive weapons to Ukraine as soon as right now?

A.P.: The Ukrainian army isn’t capable of taking offensive actions against the Russian army. There is nothing shameful about it, keeping in mind that the materiel and personnel resources of those two armies are incommensurable. The best thing for Ukraine now would be strategic defense. If Ukraine officially turns away from liberating the occupied territories (Crimea, Lugansk, and Donetsk) with weapons and concentrates upon tactical defense, then the main argument against supplying it with weapons (escalation of conflict) will vanish.

L.M.: How sustainable is Putin’s regime, and for how long can he remain in power? At the beginning of 2012, many felt that there wasn’t much time to wait. In your IMR interview of March 2012, you said that there were no more than two years left for Putin.

A.P.: All authoritarian regimes fall as a result of a combination of two things: massive demonstrations in the streets and a split among the elites. From December 2011 to January 2012, there were enough people in the streets: 100,000 to 150,000. If a notable split would have happened among the elites (at least into Medvedev’s circle and Putin’s circle, or into systemic liberals and siloviki), then there would have been 500,000 out in the streets the next morning, and the split would have only grown. But there wasn’t a single signal from the elites. After giving it thought, systemic liberals decided that restraining the protest movement would serve them better than splitting with Putin. So it became possible to bring down the protests. The chance that we all discussed in 2011–2012 was missed because of extraordinary greed and the stupidity of our elites.

L.M.: What would the downfall of Putin’s regime look like: a peaceful revolution, a violent, bloody revolution, or a palace coup?

A.P.: It’s very difficult to expect that there will appear a massive protest movement in today’s society, which has become more totalitarian in comparison to 2011. In order for social dissatisfaction to be realized in notable actions, it should be structured via some organizations. And where are those organizations? There don’t exist any independent trade unions or parties. So we probably should expect a palace coup when Putin brings the country to such a crisis in foreign policy as to seriously threaten his immediate personal surroundings.

L.M.: Since 1999, there has existed something of a tacit bargain between the Russian people and those in power: “I (Putin) will give you growth in pensions and salaries, and you (citizens, business) won’t interfere with politics.” In 2014, for the first time since the beginning of the century, Russians’ real income dropped. How will this affect the sustainability of the regime?

A.P.: Economic difficulties will only grow. Sanctions are not the reason for today’s crisis; they were a catalyst for it. The main reason is that this thieving system cannot provide any real development. The institution of private property doesn’t exist. No one is eager to invest in innovations. Such economics is doomed. The bargain with people of which you speak worked in an artificial system of unthinkably high oil prices and easy credits from the West. Today, both factors have disappeared, and all the vices of this system have become easy to see.

The irresponsibility of the Russian elites might let this agony last for quite a long time. The central question is, What will fall quicker: Putin’s regime or Russia itself? For instance, the Caucasus de facto isn’t a part of Russia anymore. Russian laws haven’t been working there for a long time already—particularly in Chechnya. Russia just lost its war there and has been paying for the Chechen government to formally express its loyalty, and not even to Russia, but to Putin personally. Putin’s exercises with “green men” in Crimea are setting a great example for authoritarian regimes in Asia. “Green men” of these regions could also appear at any moment in the Far East and Siberia. The latter could also appear at any moment, discover that they are many, and propose to hold a referendum to express their political vision. That’s not even to mention the Islamic regions in the Volga River basin. The longer this agony goes on, the fewer chances there are for Russia to stay within its current borders in the future.