20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its 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. Journalist Leonid Martynyuk speaks with prominent Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, Putin’s policy toward Ukraine, and its consequences.



Leonid Martynyuk: The most discussed event of the past weeks in Russia was the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. Who do you think was behind it? What were their goals?

Dmitry Oreshkin: I think Nemtsov was assassinated by those who wanted to put Putin at odds with the rest of the world. The logic was as follows: Putin was short-sighted enough to get into the Crimean trap. There are two ways for him to act now: first, he can return to a moderately responsible position, make peace with the West, declare his respect for the rule of law, give property rights guarantees, etc. But this is unlikely, since it would mean he would have to admit a failure. The second way is to decorate the mousetrap, pretend it’s a palace, and proudly walk around. Those who organized this assassination would feel better if [he chose] the second way. [They need] isolation, an iron curtain, an inflated defense budget, and the protection of domestic industries that are incapable of competing with the West. [They need] Putin to turn toward the East once and for all.

The death of Boris Nemtsov was predetermined. A corrupt sultanate [like Russia today] cannot exist under the conditions of European liberties. It is incapable of following its own laws—on media freedom, fair elections, private property. [It can only] kill, frighten, incarcerate, defame, ban [dissidents] from the country—it doesn’t have any other tools.

LM: Do you think a new political reality has been established in Russia after Nemtsov’s assassination? Has the attitude toward Putin changed?

DO: I think Putin wasn’t happy about this assassination. First, he doesn’t like when his window of opportunity narrows. Second, it came as a signal that people from his [power] vertical are ready to act by themselves—in their own interests, not his. After Nemtsov was killed, not only did Putin become an international aggressor in the eyes of the whole world, but now he is also viewed as a man who cannot guarantee oppositionists their constitutional right to life—even if he doesn’t kill them himself. He is not Stalin; he is some “hybrid” version of Stalin. At least Stalin was in control: he would sign the execution lists himself. Putin seems to be presented with [these executions] after the fact. When you remove all the veneer, in the light of Nemtsov’s murder, Putin looks like a weak and dependent politician. He surely knows who made a decision [to kill Nemtsov], but there’s nothing he can do about it because he’s scared that a clan war over redistribution of power might break out [inside the Kremlin]. Once again legitimacy has been sacrificed to the idea of the elusive stability.

LM: What do you think about Putin’s war strategy? There exists a view that Putin started the military conflict in Donbass so that the world would forget about the annexation of Crimea. Another opinion is that Putin needs the whole southwest of Ukraine, and maybe even more.

DO: One shouldn’t overestimate Putin. The idea of calling him “the collector of Russian lands” is an undeserved compliment. Putin would be happy to be such a “collector,” of course. Deep in his soul, he equates himself with historical figures such as Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, [and] Stalin. But in reality, he is on a lower level. [He doesn’t have any] grand strategy [in Ukraine], but more of an opportunistic tactics aimed at retaining power: to bite [off a territory] where a neighbor is weaker and to inflate his own approval ratings. There have been three wars [during Putin’s rule]: Chechnya, Georgia, and now Crimea and Donbass. And there have been three hikes in his ratings, respectively. All three times [the hikes] were short-lived, bearing only doubtful benefits for Russia. As a result of the Chechen war, [Russia] received a breakout of corruption and contract murders [in that region], and [the responsibility] of maintaining its $2 billion annual costs. The Georgian campaign added more holes to the budget—not very large ones, luckily. And what was the profit? Did strategic security increase, [Russia’s] international position improve, the ruble become stronger, or the labor capacity rise? No, [it brought about] a boost in political ratings, [working like] patriotic yeast. For a year or two.

The Ukraine [conflict] was intended to draw [the whole of Ukraine] into the Eurasian Union. It seemed to be [Putin’s first political move] on a truly strategic level. But it all ended up a failure for a typical reason: [Putin’s] vertical can’t propose an economic and social model that would be more attractive than the West’s.

LM: The Kremlin’s version is that all these campaigns were initiated to protect Russian interests from the foreign enemy—the United States.

DO: Yes, they do say that the U.S. spent $5 billion on the Maidan. It’s a lie. [U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs] Victoria Nuland said that since 1991, $5 billion has been allocated for the development of democracy in Ukraine, but no money was spent just on the Maidan. But our “forward-looking” [political elites] immediately concluded that these monies were spent entirely on the Maidan! Sure, let’s just assume that the cunning U.S. foresaw all of this 23 years ago and has been spending these $5 billion on preparation for the Maidan all this time.

Russian Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov claimed that “we have been, in a way, sponsoring the Ukrainian economy for the last 20 years, spending hundreds of billions of dollars.” [If he says “hundreds” as in plural], it means that there has been at least 200 [billion spent]. Hence, Russia has invested no less than $200 billion over the last 20 years—that is 40 times more than the U.S. In terms of international competition, how would you assess a manager who invests $40 [into a partnership] against his rival’s $1 but in the end loses a partner with [whom he has] a 300-year-old relationship based on loyalty? [That is] even if we assume that half of the invested money has been stolen. But are our leaders 20 times more stupid than the American ones? That’s hardly true. It’s more likely that, just like their Soviet predecessors, they are pursuing the wrong strategy.

LM: What is their major mistake?

DO: Ukrainians want to live like Europeans—with normal laws, fair elections, a transparent budget, and contained corruption. That’s normal. But Putin wants them to live like Eurasians—under his “kindhearted” corrupt government. This is unnatural. [The government] can buy Yanukovich’s gang for $17 billion, but they can’t buy a whole country with relatively free media. [Putin’s power] vertical can’t admit its obvious failure, so a situational decision has been made—to bite off Crimea as a farewell present to Ukraine and to “cash it out” in the form of the ratings growth. The vertical only makes sense under war conditions. During peacetime, neither the people nor the local elites understand why they should tighten their belts and spend enormous funds to maintain this vertical. Thus, it needs a constant hysterical propaganda that justifies the use of violence, the search for domestic and foreign enemies, and a real or virtual confrontation. A “collective” Putin can’t develop either Ukraine or Crimea. He can develop only his own vertical.

A possible scenario: the propaganda campaign will refocus on confrontation with the U.S. Against this background, the Ukrainian failure won’t be so obvious. There will be a shift toward a global bluff.

LM: Why are you so sure that Putin’s vertical has already failed in Donbass?

DO: First, Ukraine will ultimately be lost. Its army has learned how to fight [and] purged from its ranks old officers who leaned toward the Kremlin and Lubyanka. The country has come together against the common enemy. Second, with every passing month, Putin’s use of force becomes less and less effective. Of course, Ukraine can’t fight against Russia, the largest army in Europe, on equal terms. But it can make the costs for the offense unexpectedly high. Putin wanted a “small victorious war” but faces a long, bloody conflict with an unclear outcome. Third, the pressure of sanctions, and of informational and diplomatic resistance, increases as the Russian economy deteriorates. Each new step [in Ukraine] costs [the Kremlin] even more: in the zinc coffins [of the Russian soldiers who fought and were killed in Ukraine], the falling ruble, the freezing of accounts, capital flight. Propaganda is yelling that “we don’t care,” but the economy can’t help but feel [what’s going on]. It has become clear that sooner or later Putin will have to stop.

LM: In your opinion, what will Putin do next? And what could be the consequences?

DO: If he moves on [to conquer Ukraine], both he and Russia will only encounter more grievances. When he took over Crimea, the world couldn’t or didn’t want to understand what was going on. Now everyone has realized who they are dealing with and are actively discussing [further steps]. Options have been calculated, response measures developed. Ukraine is building its defenses: digging trenches, constructing fortifications. The demarcation line has been effectively drawn. Ukraine hasn’t admitted it out loud, but these things usually happen during secession. What was supposed to happen has happened: Donbass has de facto seceded, and in a very profitable form for Ukraine. The pompous Novorossia, which in theory included eight Russian-speaking regions [of Ukraine], is in reality a locked-in territory that only comprises 30 to 40 percent of the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk. This is not enough for 4 million local people to live as an independent economic entity. Will Putin move further? Such a possibility exists, but it would be suicide. Everyone is expecting this move. That is why I think it won’t happen. Putin’s instinct for self-preservation will prevail. But again, given Nemtsov’s murder, he can’t control everything anymore.

A possible scenario: the propaganda campaign will refocus on confrontation with the U.S. Against this background, the Ukrainian failure won’t be so obvious. There will be a shift toward a global bluff. I don’t see any alternatives. In order to camouflage its failures, the Kremlin needs to keep feeding the hysteria. In practical terms, any direct confrontation will lead to subversive action in the opponent’s territory: explosions, sabotage, guerillas, and provocations.

LM: Should the West counter Putin’s aggression with something more than economic sanctions?

DO: The West was distracted and shocked by the ease with which Putin crossed the line, but over the last year it has been able to find a counterstrategy. It acted rationally. The only sphere where Putin has something close to parity is war—primarily, nuclear war. On any other level he is inferior to the West. That is the reason why he likes to play the nuclear card so often. In contrast, the West is interested in taking the conflict to the field of the economy and high living standards—where it holds an advantage. Last year, the West won Ukraine in this field; 25 years ago it took down the USSR in the same field. It looks like within several years it will also win Belarus and the Kaliningrad region.

Finally, the West has its own interests [regarding Russia]—it doesn’t have to do our job and build a more efficient and sane state. Its strategy is fully understandable: to let Putin fall into the trap of stagnation and international isolation as deeply as he can. Such self-restraint may seem selfish and annoy Ukrainian patriots, but it’s their problem. The West is interested in freezing the conflict and containing it, not in conquering Russia and destroying the Orthodox Church or the Russian world, as we are being told on TV. In this game, Europe is playing second fiddle [to the U.S.] quite consciously, preferring not to rush its pressuring of [Russia] while having a contingency plan in case of escalation.

LM: So sanctions are sufficient?

DO: No one can tell that in advance. If sanctions are not toughened, that will signal to [Putin] that the “Anschluss of Crimea” has been successful. Pressure must constantly grow [for the sanctions to be effective]. It really has, and the sanctions are having a cumulative effect. [This approach] resembles Reagan’s strategy of “rollback of Communism.” [Putin and his cronies, or the so-called] “collective Putin” has done so many silly and mean things himself that one doesn’t really need to take many additional steps. An irresponsible energy policy resulted in the state budget’s critical dependence on commodities prices. Government attacks on Yukos led to a Hague court award [to shareholders] of $50 billion. There are ongoing investigations into Alexander Litvinenko’s death and the shooting down of the MH17 flight. . . . Western bureaucrats could have [turned a blind eye to all of this], but after [the annexation of] Crimea, they have dealt with all this eagerly. Yet the West is still afraid to drive Putin to the edge, although it shouldn’t be. Putin is rushing there himself, and the only possible strategy for him now is as follows: “Don’t touch me, I’m mentally unstable! Here’s my doctor’s certificate!” But one shouldn’t trust that certificate—it’s fake, just like everything else Putin has.

LM: Why did Putin begin the Donbass adventure? Was it a way to retain power and increase his ratings?

DO: Putin is a chekist, which means he’s poorly educated and quite ignorant. Though he is naturally smart, he is driven by Lubyanka-style instincts. The Soviet people truly believed that by annexing someone’s territories, they were making their country stronger and richer. But the “geopolitics of territories” is the last century’s way of [thinking]. Everything is different in the twenty-first century. A “geopolitics of flows” is more modern. In order to get access to oil, one doesn’t have to conquer Venezuela, Nigeria, Libya, or Iran, and then take responsibility for the endless conflicts and infighting between the locals [that would result]. It’s enough to build a pipeline, and the money will flow in. In the times of Stalin and Hitler, Anschlusses were admired. [The idea was that] territories and their populations could be exploited, intimidated, and terrorized: no one would ask any questions. But it isn’t like that any more. New lands should be cultivated; they need to be invested in.

LM: What do you think Putin is going to do with [his new] territories?

DO: Putin has nothing to invest. In order to build a bridge over the Kerch Strait, he’s got to cancel the project to build a bridge over the Lena River. Siberia will wait—as usual. But there is a risk that there will be no bridge at all—[even though] it’s part of the worldview [of Putin’s elite]. When Sergei Ivanov complains that we have “provided” Ukraine with hundreds of billions of dollars, [one may ask]: Why not [provide such funds to the] Ivanovo, Tver, or Pskov region? Or Yakutia? Then, perhaps, Ukraine could have something to be envious of in Russia. But the “vertical” was built just for extracting resources and spending them on the expansion of power. [Such a strategy] might have made sense a century ago, but not anymore. There are other global issues on the agenda, such as a dearth of investment flows and intensification of social-economic development, but Putin is still boasting that he annexed a foreign territory.