Below is a lightly edited transcript of a panel ACURA hosted on May 19th featuring Marlene Laruelle, Anatol Lieven, Pietro Shakarian and moderated by Katrina vanden Heuvel and James W. Carden on the subject of how the war is affecting Russia politically.
Katrina vanden Heuvel:
Thank you for joining us today. I know it’s evening for some of our panelists, American Committee for US-Russia Accords board members, Marlene Laruelle and Anatol Lieven, and our ally, Pietro Shakarian, to discuss what the war means for Russia at home. The war will end. How it ends, we do not know. We do not know what will follow. It will have enormous implications for the geopolitical landscape for Europe, for NATO, for the world, as it’s already having, and of course, for and inside Russia. Today, we’re going to discuss the short and the long term, what’s clear is that the civic and institutional fabric of Russian society has been altered, changed, transformed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There are questions, many questions. Will the Putin regime take an increasingly hard line against dissent? Will there be a Putin regime? If not, what kind of government or forces will rule Russia? What can we expect from the political fallout? Will nationalists and far right movements grow stronger? How will the economic sanctions impact the elite people?
Let me just take a minute to introduce ACURA. This is one of a series of discussions, panels we’ve had over these last couple years, very fraught times, difficult times. Our mission from the beginning has been to provide history, context, robust discussion, and debate, and in dialogue in large space for diplomacy, restraint, realism with humanity and reduce tensions to avoid the revival of a more dangerous cold war. Now that may seem quixotic.
The American committee was founded in the early 70s. People like George Kennan, who we’ve heard much of in these last weeks, Tom Watson of IBM, Donald Kendall of Pepsi Cola, John Kenneth Galbraith. It worked then in a different climate, I would submit, for detente. There was a community for detente in a way there isn’t today sadly. It was relaunched, the committee, by my late husband, Steven Cohen in 2015. We’ve worked very hard, as I said, to maintain a dialogue at a moment when the lockdown, particularly in the United States, maybe in other countries in Europe as such, that it seems counterproductive for our mutual security and for a world without war and a world that is about restraint and not policing the world.
Thank you so much for the invitation. I just would like to begin maybe by giving a few points of where I think we are now in Russia in terms of domestic politics and the regime itself. Let me begin by the regime. I think what we have been seeing since February 24 is that the regime has been pretty much shaken by the war itself. First, because a large part of the government and of the official, we are not informed of the war to come, and so discover it the same way we did. Secondly, because the regime was probably taken by surprise by the scope of the reaction coming from the west and by the fact that it was planned. What was planned to be a very short, special operation is now becoming a really long term war.
The regime has been shaken, but it has stabilized since then. I think we have seen several signs of Russian elites re-consolidating after first one week or two weeks of panicking moment, re-consolidating around Putin. We have almost no defection from anyone among the Russian elites or among Russian diplomats abroad, and I think that’s an interesting signs to notice. We have seen, once the regime decided to change its strategy for Ukraine and not to try to conquer the world of Ukraine or at least Kyiv keep, but move to more modest goal of conquering the Donbas. We have seen the emergence of a party of war in Russia, and I think that’s important for us to keep that in mind, that they are today in Russia around the Kremlin, people who think that just conquering the Donbas is the wrong strategy and who wants the big one.
I’m saying that because it means that it’s important for us to realize that Putin is not the worst. Putin is still a relatively moderate compared to some people inside its own entourage who are hoping for something that would be much more radical. What we see emerging now is more or less three group that we can identify. This party of war really hoping for the world conquest of Ukraine, of course, without any kind of real assessment on the failures of the Russian military on the ground. A centrist group embodied probably by Putin who consider that conquering the Donbas and the Azov Sea region is already enough and would be considered as a victory.
Then, we had on the other side, the part of the government, the civilianized technocratic aspect of the Russian government and part of the oligarchs, for whom everything is a bad news, the small version of the war or the big version of the war. I think it’s also important to realize that this technocratic government is still functioning. It’s trying to make things working, trying to manage the impact of the sanction, trying to have the state continuing, running its everyday activities, and you have people who are pretty efficient in managing the crisis and the impact of the sanction and trying to draw a future for Russia of functioning in the current context. The regime has become clearly more repressive, more authoritarian, more autocratic, largely de-globalized, but not entirely. I think, also, it’s an important element to realize that Russia is decoupling itself from the west and the west from Russia, but the west is not the rest of the world. The de-globalization of Russia is clearly a de-westernization more than a de-globalization and the contact with the global south are still there and still functioning.
I know it’s also difficult to hear for some people, but the level of repression in Russia is still pretty limited compared to what it could be. The laws that Russia has passed, like the 15-years prison for those who would be attacking the official version of the war is almost not implemented. People who have been arrested are arrested and fined, are sent to jail for relatively modest time, so I think there is still, we can see that the regime is trying to avoid having to move to large scale oppression, because they know they cannot afford that.
They probably know that the population will not be supportive of that, and I think they don’t want themself, as the elites, having to create that kind of mass repression mechanism, so they are trying to revive Soviet-style ideological indoctrination, but they don’t hope for a huge mass repression. The borders are also open, meaning that those who are unhappy are invited to leave, and I think that’s also a sign we have to understand. Keeping the border open mean that inviting people to leave it the way to avoid my repression. I think we see that’s the way that they are really trying to manage business as usual the best they can in the current context, even if, of course, the changes is a pretty definitive one.
An element that I think is also important to realize that the regimes refused to mobilize men. There was a lot of discussion about the partial or mass mobilization. There is a slight mobilization happening informally, like they are checking the addresses of young men being sure they can reach out to them, trying to invite people to join the Army, but they haven’t made the move to decide for the mass mobilization, and I think that’s also is the sign that we need to interpret as the regime trying to slow down the radicalization and the mobilization of the society and trying to manage that at the lower possible level. The population is in support of the war, but in support of what it knows of the war, which is the special operation in the Donbas version in a more rescue operation of the Donbas population. They don’t see, of course, the side of the war that we see.
Surveys are, of course, to be taken with caution in war time. But I think we can more or less agree that there is at least half of the population in support of the special operation, and we have seen a kind of defensive consolidation of the population around the regime, and I think that’s also for us a way where we need to question the impact of sanction. As in Iran, we know that we have huge sanction on a country. We also create domestic consolidation around the regime. We don’t allow people to create a space, where they would imagine themself living, being able to defect from the regime or reinvent themself without sanction, so I think that’s something to keep in mind.
The population is not mobilized as it was mobilized in 2014 with Crimea annexation. Here also, I think it’s important to make that dissociation. People are not enthusiastic about the special operation. They are mobilized because they feel that the country is in danger, that’s their interpretation. They feel that the west is now entirely anti-Russia. They feel that the sanction are there to stay, and so it’s a support for the war without the enthusiasms of 2014 in Crimea.
Maybe my last point would be that, it’s still unclear what is the real endgame for Russia, but I think it’s also very unclear what is the endgame for the west. On the Russian side, I think we have seen several narratives competing with each other. Either it’s about non-NATO expansion, either it’s about Ukraine not entering NATO and EU, or either it’s about part of Ukraine having to join Russia or to be in a secessionist status, either that’s the more ideological goal of the so-called de-Nazification, and we can see how different part of the elites are playing different aspect of this kind of narrative.
Of course, the fact that now a large part of the Azov battalion in Mariupol has been surrendering, will probably be used by Russia to organize the showcase trial of the so-called Nazi battalion. That would be interesting to see how they are navigating the radicalism of the de-Nazification narrative. They were done planning it a few weeks ago, compared to early the first week of the war. I think now that they have several hundred of Azov battalion member, they may re-decide to play that. But I think on our side and I will stop here, the question is really also what is the west endgame and how do we think we have to begin talking about how do we sit at the table of negotiation? How do we want to talk to Russia?
What will be the time when the war will stop? How will we be able to rebuild something. The kind of inflation of narrative we have seen since in the beginning of the war about Russia is fascist, is I think a really dangerous trend because it doesn’t allow for policy imagination to reinvent what will be the future of Europe. If we say that Putin is Hitler, then it just mean we don’t want to sit at the diplomatic table because you don’t negotiate with Hitler. I think that’s a big strategic mistake, because it’s hampering us imagining the time where we will have to reinvent a solution that will be much broader than just the war in Ukraine, but that will be to decide what is the future of how Europe, especially, will have to share the same continent with Russia.
I think dreaming about the total collapse of the Russian regimes is a big strategic mistake, because this regime, even if it has been shaken and I will stop on that element, is resilient. All the criticism we have on the Russian economy being more and more autocratic, de-globalized, archaic, that’s also a sign of resilience. The Russian economy can function in a very low-level and dysfunctional level for pretty long, and so I think we have to realize this capacity of Russia to be resilient and to understand that it will be time for us to also begin discussing what do we want to get at the end of the war, and I will stop here.
Thank you so much, Marlene. I actually have very, very little to add to what Marlene said. I think she covered everything excellently. Clearly, this war has been a disaster for Russian culture. That raises two questions. The first is, how much of a disaster will it turn into? Secondly, will it be relatively temporary or at least, will the worst effect go away or will it be permanent? Now, the first question, I think, relates to something that Marlene raised, which is the point that so far the Russian government has not launched mass mobilization. Of course, many observers expected them to do that on the occasion of victory day. Of course, the reason they didn’t was that as Marlene also said, while there is support for this war in the population, there is very little active enthusiasm in the population at large.
Now, the thing there though is that, as a number of military analysts have pointed out, if the war goes on and on, and Ukraine basically raises, goes in for First World war style conscription and mobilization, then it’s difficult to say how quickly, but within a year or so, Ukraine will have raised enough men seriously to outnumber the Russian army in Ukraine, and of course, NATO and the United States will arm them and fund them. Now, at that point, unless we have reached some compromise piece by then, well, obviously, the hope would be in Ukraine and the west that Russia would then in effect surrender, but if indeed the Russian government has to launch mass mobilization, then one can imagine a vastly intensified program of trying to whip up nationalism, perhaps something closer in fact to totalitarianism. That is the first point.
Temporary or permanent, well, this depends, of course, on how long the war lasts. It should be said that, of course, much of what’s going on in Russia, as well as very understandably in Ukraine, but also somewhat … what would be a suitable euphemism? Vicariously perhaps in the west, but this kind of cultural hysteria is very much, of course, what one expects to see in wars on both sides. Yes, the question is whether this becomes a permanent feature of Russian culture, again, as it was, to a considerable extent onto the Soviet union, of course, with varied levels of intensity, or whether when or if the war comes to an end, this diminishes again. Now here, as Marlene has said, the west is also feeding into this by the boycotts and really quite shameful actions and language against Russian culture in general, all of which are, of course, immediately taken up and repeated by the Russian state media to convince the Russian people of implacable and hysterical and irrational anti-Russian feeling in the west.
Of course, the responsibility for whether Russian culture will be, if not, permanently alienated from the west after all the Soviet Union was not permanent for a very considerable period, that also lies in our hands. There, of course, as Marla has said, Russia is now deeply isolated from the west, but there is the rest of the world. There is China. Of course, from that point of view, this raises the question of whether … sorry, I mentioned the word Eurasianism with great deference in the presence of Marlene, who is the greatest expert in the world on this, much of Eurasianism has been a fairly thin state program. Other parts, no, have had a really, of course, deep cultural element.
Is this war going to produce a long-term phenomenon whereby there really is a deep and wide and a deeply intellectually thought out and supported term of Russian culture in this direction and what it will consist of? That’s a question for the future. Then, there is the question of the character of Russian nationalism. Here, as Marlene has said, by comparing Putin to Hitler and so forth and so on, it’s not just that this rules out any possibility of diplomatic negotiations and a solution. But of course, it totally misses the point that, as I have heard so often from Russians and Ukrainians and basically anyone who lived in the former Soviet Union, things can always get worse.
If you look at the character of Putin’s nationalism, something that, once again, totally against cretinous and ignorant Western prejudices stares out at you is that Putin is not, in fact, an ethnic nationalist, he’s a state nationalist with deep roots in the state nationalism of the Soviet Union and indeed of the Russian empire. The Putin elites are, in Russian terms, extremely multi-ethnic, including, by the way, people of ethnic Ukrainian origin, and has not nearly widely enough been pointed out. Of course, Putin has never, despite obvious temptations to do so, attempted to use the anti-Semitic card in Russian politics. Hence, one reason why his personal relations with Israeli governments have been very good.
On the one hand, one can see an impetus from this towards Eurasianism in Russian culture and the character of Russian nationalism, but it is also of course, entirely possible that one will see a much, much stronger tendencies towards ethnic Russian nationalism, which has Putin himself has written in an essay for [foreign language 00:24:29] in 2011, which deserves to be better known, would be a catastrophe for the Russian Federation, which is by nature, a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state. Of course, with, as you wrote, Russian culture is the central element.
Here is a great danger, and this is something that I’ve said ever since actually I wrote my book on the Baltic Revolutions now almost 30 years ago. The people who ask for Russia to become “normal” nation state should be careful of what they’re wishing for. Russia as a quasi-empire has been much, much more comfortable for ethnic minorities within Russia, and also of course, for the desire to get on with certain other republics rather than to exploit their own internal ethnic differences, notably Kazakhstan.
An awful lot of nation states around the world, including in Europe, are also deeply, deeply ethnic nationalists in a way which could turn Russia into an even uglier, and certainly for much of its population, more dangerous phenomenon than exists today. Finally, on the future of the regime, once again, I agree with Marlene, one, I think, sees definite elements of consolidation. One sees how Putin’s use of the idea, and of course an increasingly accurate one, that this is a proxy war certainly of the United States or if not of NATO as a whole against Russia is being used to cover up the absolutely what ought to be glaring, both crimes and blunders of the regime in the invasion of Ukraine.
How long will that work for the regime? Well, once again, we have to … resilience, certainly, but we have to see if, for example, down the line, deeper economic suffering is combined with attempts at much greater mass mobilization for war. One can also imagine, of course, possibly in the guise of Mr. Navalny, a protest movement of which was both bitterly anti-Putin and extremely nationalist. There are many, many, many open questions for the future, but certainly, I would say that clearly, this war has been a disaster, obviously, for Ukraine, but also for Russia itself. The longer the war goes on and the more it does become a struggle in effect between Russia and the west, the more disastrous those consequences are likely to become.
It’s wonderful to be in such good company. Marlene, Anatol, thank you for your excellent remarks. I actually wanted to talk about this issue of what is the impact of … when we look at this war in Ukraine, of course, we had several events leading up to it. Yeah, the most prominent of which has been discussed about has been the NATO expansion issue, also these post-Soviet revolutions, color revolutions, and especially speaking of somebody who is of Armenian origin, who is reporting to you from Yerevan, I follow these issues quite closely. Basically, the question should be, basically, first and foremost, people in the post Soviet space, as the other panelists well know and as most of our listeners know, are more than capable of democracy. This idea that we can bring democracy to the post-Soviet space or these policies of NATO expansion, I would submit have had a catastrophic impact on the developments of democracy, if we understand democracy as a mix of freedom, equality, potential for economic opportunity, so on and so forth, it’s been a disaster for democracy and civil society in post-Soviet countries.
First and foremost, Russia, and we can see that through, not only the reactions that have come about as a result of this war, you hear more of an uptick of rhetoric of about traders, national traders, you have representatives of the liberal faction of the Russian ruling elite. Mr. [Medvedev 00:29:43], who has now become very critical of Europe, that should tell you something. That should tell the west something that now you have the leader of the so-called liberal faction of the Russian elite criticizing Europe. Right there, there’s an issue. But you have this, now this increased rhetoric of traders in our midst, that we need to get them out or that we should, not that they should just, if they love the west so much, that they should go to the west and so on and so forth. This kind of rhetoric is contributing to a process that we’ve been seeing over the years.
When we see, for example, the recent closing of Memorial, we see the Foreign Agent law, the anti-NGO law, this is not evidence of democratic success. Ukraine, frankly too, has also been a country that has de-democratized. We have Mr. Zelensky who is lionized in the west as a great democratic hero, but he has banned opposition parties in Ukraine. If we look at this war, but also if we look at the events leading up to it, the effort to promote democracy, the effort to expand NATO has been a disaster for the natural process of democratization in the post-Soviet space, which I would submit, again, the people here are more than capable of doing it themselves. We saw that with Khrushchev and de-Stalinization, we saw that with Gorbachev in Perestroika and Glasnost.
The American government didn’t tell Gorbachev to make those reforms. They didn’t tell Khrushchev to de-Stalinize the country. This is an endogenous process. The geopolitical dynamics externally have disrupted those processes and have actually created more room for repression, more room for the potential of even worse repression that we’re seeing now. Marlene mentioned that yes, we have repression, but it’s at a very light level from what it could be. I’ve worked in the archives in Yerevan and in Moscow, and I’ve worked with scholars at Memorial, I can tell you about the Stalinist repressions. Those are real repressions. We haven’t seen anything to that level, but it could get that bad, and that’s where these foreign policies are leading us.
I think that that’s something that we should definitely take into consideration when we think about this, that it is not. If we think these policies are helping democracy, they’re spreading democracy, that they’re democratizing the region, it is in fact doing the exact opposite. People have been warning about this for many years, by the way, including, Katrina, your late husband, Steve Cohen had been talking a lot about this. That this has not been helpful in any sort of way.
We have that and also the other question we could ask some advocates of democracy promotion in the United States, can we even say that this has been beneficial for the United States? I don’t think so. Look, we’ve actually been witnessing an erosion of democracy in the United States. We’ve been witnessing the rise of corporate power in the United States, the rise of the war party in the United States. We see the influence of the arms industry, certainly on this conflict in Ukraine, but not only. The wars in Libya, Iraq, Syria, all across the Middle East and even the greater Middle East, we talk about Afghanistan.
I think that, frankly, however you [inaudible 00:33:38], actually, it’s been a disaster for democracy in the Western world as well too. When we talk about domestic repercussions, it’s important to look at, not only the impact in terms of on Russia and Ukraine and post-Soviet countries, but also the impact in terms of the Western world itself. That’s pretty much all I have. I just want to say that I concur fully with Anatol in terms of the idea that if we had a Russian ethnic nationalism, it’s one thing to have a state nationalism, but if you have a Russian ethnic nationalism, that will be immensely catastrophic, not only for the Russian Federation, it goes without saying, but for the whole post-Soviet space. Also, I would say that those commentators in the west who hope that the war Ukraine will result in Putin falling or the regime crumbling or something like this, it could result in something, a level of violence that we haven’t really seen since the Russian civil war across Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia, and all these Republics.
It could be immensely catastrophic and immensely violent. We don’t want something like that, and that does not, in any way, benefit American national security. On that note, yeah, I think that this, if we look at the war in Ukraine, we look at its domestic implications, it has not been good, and it has certainly not helped democratization in any way or the natural process of democratization.
Katrina vanden Heuvel:
Thank you, Pietro, for those important remarks. I wanted to ask Marlene and Anatol a question about the issue of the war parties. War parties rise at times of cold war, at times of rising nationalism. Marlene, who would you put in the war party? You’ve written about many characters in the rise of illiberalism and the transnational illiberal movement and how are they relating, by the way, to other countries. In that context, Anatol, I remember your piece of months ago about Macron and perhaps we were witnessing his channeling of de Gaulle and there might be a more independent Europe. But at the moment, as I think both of you and Pietro alluded to the de-coupling, de-globalization is essentially de-Europeanization, because the global south is looking, it seems to me, on this war as having impact. Food shortages, resource wars, other, but not directly involved.
What are the impacts of the de-globalization, de-Europeanization, both politically, internationally and economically, because we’ve seen some movement toward the de-dollarization of the financial system, which seems significant if that continues. Marlene, if you might, I think Anatol referred to the possibility of a protest movement, where it might arise. It certainly seems we would need to have a nationalist component, but do you see, there is Navalny, of course.… The other day, I saw that Putin is now changing the role of governors, they will no longer be elected, I think. Many of them, the key ones, will be appointed. Do you see in around the country a kind of mobilization that might lead to a protest movement?
Well, I think, to see a protest movement developing, it would mean that we would need to have really like, so the sanction impacting really largely everyday life, which it may be doing, but it will still take a few months to be visible. So far, it’s mostly inflation, but not many other things visible for average citizen. We would also need probably to have mobilization. I think mass mobilization could trigger protest. I don’t think we should hope for any kind of liberal, Navalny type to arrive, or those who, first, they were already a minority and then now the majority of them have left. They are abroad, and usually, once you are in a position abroad, your capacity to influence what is happening in your own country is even lower than when you are at home.
If something happen in term of regime change and protest, it will be by people who are already inside the system, who are already insiders, but consider that, “Okay, it’s time to change think,” otherwise the world pyramid of power may be collapsing, and I think the nationalist statement will indeed probably be a very strong word. You cannot hope to have Southern near full western mobilization arriving, so it will be from inside the system by people who are already pretty high or mid-level senior official, and it will have a nationalist component for sure.
The party of war, as we can identify it, and of course, it’s very difficult and it’s probably, it’s more individual expressing their own opinion that they’re a constituted group, but we have some names of people from the security services or the security council like Patrushev, we had Dmitry Rogozin, who has always been a very vocal nationalist, they’re very aggressive toward the west. We have those who are doing more zealous demonstration of over-loyalty Kadyrov-style.
Medvedev has been shifting, clearly, from the former so called liberal to belonging to the party of war, which is interesting because I don’t know what this tell if people really believe what they’re saying, but it means that if they think they have to express themselves on the Russian media landscape to say, think that are more radical than the official lines, it also mean they think it’s worse for their own career to do that, which mean their own projection and how the regime will be evolving, that it’ll become more hardliner than it is already is.
Then, there are some more technocratic people that are either in the presidential administration or inside the United Russia party that seems also to be moving with very, very strong narrative. The text that was published by … the infamous text published by RIA Novosti early March that was really genocidal toward Ukraine, was published by a journalist who is a no one politically, which mean that if he was publishing that in RIA Novosti, there was someone over him, a patron who wanted that narrative to arrive in the discussion just a few days after Bucha. I think it’s just telling us that there are tensions inside the inner circle about the level of radicality that they want to be pushing forward.
Yes. On the party of war and also on France and Europe, something that I heard for the first time in 2019 and then heard much more strongly at the Valdai Conference in October of last year, was that for years, large sections of the Russian establishment had been kicking themselves, but also, to a certain extent, blaming Putin for not invading half of Ukraine in 2014, when of course, they could have done so militarily very easily, and by the way, when, of course, they had an elected president, who they’d have had to beat him around the head to get him to do it. They could have installed Leukonychia somewhere in the east and said, “Look, this is the elected president. Let’s talk. Let’s negotiate on the constitution.” Putin was being blamed, once again, rather quietly, privately and so forth, but still, for having invested too much hope.
Although, this was, of course, by no means, just Putin. This was very much a wider hope of the Russian establishment, but it also brings out that Putin has changed, but he’s changed under the impact of events if you like. Putin invested too much hope in France and Germany, and the idea that they would broker an agreement over Ukraine that would leave Russia with a considerable measure of influence within Ukraine. Of course, that hope was kept alive by the Minsk agreement of 2015. Thereafter, of course, the French and Germans did absolutely nothing actually to push that agreement through, to get the Ukrainians to implement it, to mobilize American support for it. This loss of faith in Europe on the part of the Russians, the loss of faith in European, any possibility of European strategic autonomy and reconciliation with Russia, I think is a critical factor in bringing about the war.
It didn’t die completely until the very eve of the war, because from what I gather, Putin was hoping that Macron would advocate a treaty of neutrality or would at least call for a moratorium or give something that would, not just allow Putin to claim diplomatic success over Ukraine, but also keep alive that idea of splitting Europe and America. But already last year, you were beginning to have some people who previously had been by no means nationalist hardliners saying things like, to the west, we have only enemies. Now, for the future, at the moment, European strategic autonomy looks dead as a nail.
But of course, we have to see what happens. Talking to some of the French and the Germans, if we go into the autumn with deepening economic crisis in Europe, as well as in the wider world, facing a European winter of energy shortages and much higher energy prices, and if America were to be seen to be blocking possible paths towards ending the war or a peace settlement, then if only under the lash of public discontent in Europe, it is, I suppose, possible that the French and the Germans might, to some degree, develop an autonomous line. But so far, every hope of that has always been disappointing.
One thing I want to also add to what Anatol has said has been, actually there was the story that was leaked to the Wall Street Journal, where actually Schultz had proposed to Zelensky the possibility of neutrality for Ukraine, which Zelensky unfortunately rejected out of hand. That was one of those events leading us on this pathway to war unfortunately. The Europeans, actually, I have to say, you could actually, even in the months leading up to this, you could have decoupled the Anglosphere, the Americans and the British from the continental Europeans, at least the continental Western Europeans, on this issue of Ukraine and Russia and trying to find a peace. It was very clear that Paris and Berlin wanted to find some peace and avoid, at all cost, a catastrophic war in Europe.
We also have to think this too. It’s very easy for the many Americans to talk about fighting or war in Europe, as long as, first of all, they’re not doing the fighting and number two, they don’t consider the history of war in Europe. We look at the wars of religion, we look at first world war, the second world war, this, for Europe, especially when we look at the formation of the European Union, this was a statement against the war. The reconciliation of France and Germany was a statement against war. For Europeans to avoid war on the scale of all costs was the ideal scenario, but unfortunately, we see where this has taken us.
On the radicalization bit, also, I think that we see, with the recent developments in the post-Soviet space with Kazakhstan, for example, the CSGO acting basically, as the Warsaw pet sweeping in and saving the government from what could have potentially been another color revolution, possibly with Turkey’s support. This, I think many hardliners I’m sure on the Kremlin turned to Putin at that point and said, “Look, you should have done the same in Ukraine in 2014, keep Yanakovich there. You should have swept in and kept him in power to avoid something like this,” and we would’ve had many, many more people living today in Ukraine, in Eastern Ukraine in particular in Donbas, and we would’ve been able to avoid this.
Look, that if you take a harder line, in fact, you’ll be able to save more lives and there will be more stability and they would probably be making this kind of argument to Putin.
Katrina vanden Heuvel:
Pietro, Can I ask you a quick question in terms of being in Yerevan? There’s a narrative in this country, the United States, about the brain drain, younger people leaving and what that means for Russia’s future. My sense is, I’ve heard that Yerevan has become a hub for many Russians.
Yeah, there are many. There are many, many, many of them here.
In Tbilisi too, and actually the Georgians, so Yerevan actually is ideal because there are many Georgians who, of course, resent Russia for the Abkhazian and South Ossetian issues, but not all Georgians. All right. Maybe there’s this idea that Georgians are so nationalistic, but not all Georgians necessarily. Here in Yerevan, it’s even a warmer reception and actually I have frequented many cafes, where the Russians have descended since their arrival. Many of them are people from the IT sector who thrive on international connections. In fact, Medvedev has talked about this, that we’re losing brilliant young minds, who we need for the IT sector to develop the IT sector in Russia. You also have people who would be maybe anti-regime leaving Russian Federation as well and that has been extensively covered in the west.
But also I would say that actually even more significant number of people who are afraid of the impact of their industry, which is the IT industry, what this war and the sanctions would mean for their industry, and also the impact of the sanctions on their everyday lives, because you have to think these are young families who were part of this up and coming middle class in Russia. Many of them have come here and they’ve embraced the culture, the Armenians have embraced them, so it’s like old home week. Everybody’s speaking Russian or actually some of them actually are trying to learn Armenians, it’s an interesting element. Actually, I’m glad you raised that because I was going to raise that issue as well too, but yes, that is something you see and yeah, it adds some spice to the picture in Yerevan.
Katrina vanden Heuvel:
I was going to ask one more question off Anatol if I could. Today, the Washington Post is advertising for a new correspondent in Russia. I think of you, Anatol. You were a journalist. If you took on that assignment, I’m just curious, what would you take on as assignments?
I think it fairly unlikely that I would be offered that…
… even if I applied. But I suppose, the first thing would be get out of Moscow. Travel, of course, now, that has become more difficult. But certainly, trying to find out what people in the Russian provinces are thinking, not just obviously about the war, but also about the state, about their society, their attitudes to the elites, what they’re still grateful to Putin for, what they are now angry about. That would be the first thing. Obviously, in the context of the war, to judge the depth of nationalist commitment, as Marlene has said, at the moment there is support, but it seems little enthusiasm. Of course, something that was so easy in the 90s, relatively speaking, context with the elites is now very difficult.
Many of the people who we know well, who used to be part of the, at least the outer circle of the Putin regime, have been pushed out. I think the reporting of the tremendous narrowing of the regime and of Putin’s inner circle are entirely correct, and I think that also played a real part in the decision both to go to war and how to go to war. Yes, to bring out both the changes driven by Putin since the beginning of the war, the harsher authoritarianism, but also as Marlene has said, to try to reflect the fact that, after all, this is still not a fully totalitarian state and the nuances. Also, of course, to remind people against, once again, so much of the Western narrative, that Russia is still, thank God, a multi-ethnic state. It’s interesting, seen from Tatarstan, for example, there is still, of course, Tatar liberals do not like the Putin regime, but they are, I think, much more than Russian liberals, aware that you could see something much worse.
Yeah, absolutely. I can say that also from the same from an Armenian perspective as well too. The other thing also about the Russian nationalism is when we talk, and actually, Anatol has raised this issue as well, and also Marlene has raised this as well, too, this idea of that there is not maybe a hundred percent enthusiasm for the war, but the more the Russians see the strength of the Western reaction against Russia, the more we see things like cultural bans against Russian culture, where, let’s say, Tolstoy is canceled, or I don’t know, Chesnokov is canceled, that it will push people more and more and more to support the war, and you will have a greater kind of mobilization. The Russians, you don’t want to push them, because if you push them there’s going to be a backlash, and we’re seeing that.
The Russians are, of course, it’s needless to say, a very proud people with a great history and a great culture. If you push them, you’re going to get a reaction. This is something else I think that many in the west fail to consider when they bring forth this idea of “canceling” Russian culture, and actually, especially to use the social media powered efforts to cancel Russia. I don’t think that will lead to anything good.
Katrina vanden Heuvel:
James, the conversation was so good, we haven’t had to ask many questions, but I turn to you as we close.
Really quickly. Richard Sakwa wrote in 2019 a book called Russia’s Futures. He writes, “Putin remains in power for so long because he addresses the concerns of major societal constituencies.” He says, “In broad terms, Russian society can be divided into four major factional blocks, each with its own view of how Russia should be organized.” The four blocks that he mentions are the liberals, the Siloviki, the Neo-traditionalists and the Eurasianists.
I was curious as to the views of the panel as to where you think the balance of power between the four blocks that Sakwa writes about, where are we today in the aftermath of February 24?
Well, I think the war shrunk the differences. I would say we have the ultra confrontational, so the party of war. We still can identify the former liberal, those who thought that Russia can be a great power, in tension with the west but not in confrontation, the Lukyanov, Kortunov groups. The Eurasianists, they don’t exist as such anymore in power. They are part of, they are integrated into the bigger group of [inaudible] globally. For me now, the liberals are no more in the decision-making except on the financial and economic sector, otherwise in foreign policy, they don’t exist anymore.
You have more or less … no, let’s say you have three groups. You have the former liberals, who didn’t want the war, the ones who want the war, but in a limited way where they hope Russia will be able to go back to more or less business as usual before and the ones who got totally wide and think that it’s the final major confrontation that should go beyond the border, even of Ukraine. But all the other, the ideological differences, I think, have lost their tonality now because of the context.
Could I just say something too really quick? I want to add in, there’s also another group that we need to address, which is the Narodniki, the people, the Narod of Russia and the centrality of the socio-economic question. This is a big problem that be-devils Russia and the whole post-Soviet space. This issue of socioeconomic inequality, it has not been fully resolved, even with Putin bringing some stability to the scene. This is also something else that, there was recently some analysis of what could happen as a result of the war in Ukraine, from this Ukrainian sociologist, Volodymyr Ishchenko. He, basically, was saying that the war could either result in a loss for Russia, and this could result maybe in the overthrow of Putin, it could result in the complete collapse of the post-Soviet space as a region, you could have civil war, you could have mass chaos.
There also could be a possibility that Russia would win the war and then they would almost have to buy off the population. They would have to justify to the Russian people and to Ukrainians why did this war happen and to help the socio-economic conditions, because this is a big problem from Moscow to Kiev, to Yerevan, to Nur-Sultan, to all these different places in the post-Soviet space. The issue of the socio-economic inequality, the social question, this is going to continue to be-devil Russia in the post-Soviet space for the foreseeable future, unless there is a serious resolution to it.
This issue of Narodniki, this is a constituency that, in fact, actually, we mentioned different groups like your Eurasianists, sex liberals, and so on and so forth. But in fact, it is the Narod who are the most important. When I was in Moscow two years ago, I would actually talk to people and say, what do you think about Putin? They would tell me, they would openly criticize him on the basis that he had not done enough to create jobs, yeah, for the economy.
Katrina vanden Heuvel:
I wish we could keep this going. I fear that this extraordinary conversation has to come to an end, we could talk for many more moons, and I’m very grateful to Anatol, to Marlene, to you, Pietro. I’m reminded, as you speak, Pietro, of the truck drivers, which are be-deviling many country’s politics, I think originated in some ways in Russia.
As did the miners and the solidarity between miners in Donbas and in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, which Fiona Hill brings up in her memoirs. In any case, I’ve received quite a few texts as we’re talking about people who haven’t heard this. They don’t know this, but they want to hear more of this informed narrative shifting conversation, and we will take this and circulate it as broadly as we can, and we’re very grateful for your time.
Coming to us from the UK, from Greece and from Armenia, this is a multi-national call, but may we find the way forward, and this was very helpful, very helpful. I would ask those on the call to come to ussrussiaaccord.org to see some of our archives. Thank you very much and look forward to being in touch in these fraught, difficult times, and may the war come to an end.