Andrey Illarionov: “The aggression against Ukraine will inevitably end in a redrawing of Russia’s borders”
Andrey Illarionov, a former advisor to Vladimir Putin, talks to The Ukrainian Week about the prospects of Russian imperialism, the efficiency of Western diplomacy and the possible consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war
U.W.: According to the latest opinion polls, 85% of Russians support Putin. How would you explain this? Could it be a form of mass psychosis or a collective inferiority complex that demands satisfaction? The figures are quite alarming, to say the least.
Indeed, never in the history of Russia has the government had this level of support – it would not be a mistake to say that this includes the last years of the USSR, at least after fairly adequate sociological measurements appeared. The figures are, no doubt, extremely alarming. They point to an excessive, colossal level of support for the aggressive imperialist policy pursued by the Putin regime, which creates an even bigger deadlock. If popular support during the Russian-Ukrainian war were much lower, there would be a chance of some compromise. Perhaps not immediately, but in some reasonably distant future. However, the present level of support essentially means that the Russian government is forced to come into a conflict, which stands every chance of turning into World War IV, not only of its own volition but now also driven by the poll results. Unfortunately, this is another proof that the war is much more real than many of us would like to believe.
For interpretations of the causes underlying these developments, one needs to turn to psychologists, psychiatrists or specialists in mass psychic deviations. Of course, this is nothing new historically, but we are now witnessing phenomena which we used to know only from historical documents. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Germany went berserk with its imperialist conquests, and similar processes were taking place in the USSR at the same time. From an academic viewpoint, this is all very interesting, but the situation is extremely painful to people who live in it.
U.W.: Why does Russia want to remain an empire and develop precisely as such? The imperial system is economically inefficient and globally uncompetitive. However, Russia is stubbornly annexing new territories. Is this long-time inertia, or something else?
There are two key reasons here. One is rational, and the other one is relatively irrational. The latter includes factors that could be correctly described as ideological. Many things in the actions of the Russian government are dictated not by logical considerations about what would be most beneficial to the country, electorate and even the rulers themselves but by an irrational notion of how things should be. It is quite clear that the concept of the “Russian world” has been inculcated in the mind of Putin, not without his personal involvement, for a long time. It is all about “uniting” the biggest “divided” people in the world – the Russians. An attempt to bring them together under one state shield is, in fact, an exact copy of the concept professed by Adolf Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg in the 1920s and the 1930s regarding “uniting” the “divided” German nation. A similar notion was propounded by Slobodan Milošević in his argument about a “divided Serbian people”. Hungarian fascists developed a similar theory during World War II as they justified their government’s policy aimed at taking over the territories that belonged to Hungary prior to World War I. The consequences for everyone who tried to pursue this kind of policy, namely Hitler, Horthy, Szálasi and Milošević, are as telling as they are miserable. They are pitiful not only for the dictators but also for the people that became cannon fodder in their ventures and died in millions for the sake of imperial phantoms. This is the so-called irrational side.
However, there is also the rational one, if this term is applicable to Russia’s current policy. You see, the easiest way to keep power in a strict authoritarian regime, which is now present in Russia, is to show an enemy to the people. It must exist not only in the propaganda fabrications generated by the rulers but must be obvious and convincing for the wide masses. In the past 15 years, the Chechens, Estonians, Georgians, sometimes Latvians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, oligarchs and others have been portrayed as enemies of the Russian regime. Despite the temporary success that these campaigns enjoyed, they have ultimately failed to enflame Russian society with hatred. Just like the Putin-inspired separatist campaign has failed to flare up in Eastern Ukraine, the likes of Estonians or Georgians as Russia’s archenemies failed to command the attention of Russian society for long. And so, after numerous attempts to find all kinds of enemies, the Russian propaganda machine got back on its time-tested track, which is anti-Americanism. The anti-American campaign was elaborated in the traditions of Soviet propaganda that goes back several decades. The only force capable of exerting an impact on Russian society of any significance is a real threat– to the Russians, their society, the state, etc. And the only serious candidate for this role is the USA. Ultimately, it so happened that the immediate needs of Putin’s regime itself and the brainwashing technology polished over the decades in the USSR and post-Soviet countries converged on anti-Americanism. To make things click, the ideology of anti-Americanism has to be continuously fuelled, which is what we see today. Therefore, there are both ideological and pragmatic, relatively rational and relatively irrational factors that have contributed to the restoration of Russian imperialism.
U.W.: Regarding the efficiency of the Western diplomatic style with Russia , how adequate is it? Can tolerance overcome intolerance? Is it realistic to bring a non-democratic opponent to order using democratic methods?
In Europe and in the West in general, there are, of course, different forces. There are those that sense the danger of revisionism and revanchism emanating from Putin’s Russia. These people are steadily growing in number. Many can see what is happening in Eastern Europe and what a lack of an adequate response to imperial actions may ultimately lead to. However, it should be honestly admitted that a large part of the Western world stubbornly refuses to see the obvious. There are several reasons here: from ideological considerations among the left (and now among the right-wing parties abroad for whom Putin has de facto become a leader) to banal bribing. Moreover, a significant number of Western politicians, businessmen and experts believe that any kind of appeasement to the current leader of Russia and to Putinism is better that the fight against Putin’s aggression.
U.W.: In your opinion, do Ukrainians have a chance to stand their ground in the armed conflict with Russia and preserve an independent Ukraine?
I have no doubt about that. I am becoming more and more convinced that this is precisely what will happen. It is clear that, in Ukraine, one can see a much higher potential for survival in society rather than in the rulers or government institutions, even though they, too, are taking small steps in the right direction. Over the 20 something years of independence, Ukrainian society has completed an enormously long journey in terms of development. It has changed, matured and become more serious and advanced in comparison to Russian society.
I remember the early 1990s when Russia came across as being far more advanced than Ukraine in many aspects of economic, political and national transformations. At the time, Ukraine appeared, I dare say, very backward and pro-Soviet and seemed to have no chance of catching up. Today, 20 years later, we can see that Ukraine is very rapidly eliminating the enclaves of Soviet-type thinking in its territory, while its eastern neighbour is reverting to archaic ways. On all important sociopolitical indicators (democracy, civil liberties and human rights), Ukraine has been ahead of Russia in the past 20 years, and today Ukraine’s lead is simply huge. It has never known mass murders of peaceful people, as was the case in Russia during the Chechen campaigns, or such severe harassment of the media as in Russia, even though the Ukrainian media experienced persecutions during certain stretches, such as under Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych. But this pales in comparison with what was and is still going on in Russia. Today, your society is much more mature. The recent events, particularly the three months of the Maidan and the three months of the Russian-Ukrainian war, have helped society to rapidly mature and draw closer together and made people more involved in society and the state. This is a very important and valuable lesson, even though it came at a dear price.
It shows the complete inadequacy of Russian propaganda regarding alleged problems with the Russian language, because no more than 8-10% of people take interest in this issue at the level of opinion polls. All polls show tiny support for separatism. The things Russia has done to Ukraine in the past three months and the way it has done them have only boosted the desire of Ukrainians, regardless of their ethnic background, to preserve a united Ukraine.
Let me tell you one important thing. The events of the past months show that there are many ethnic Russians who live in your country and are its patriots. These are the people who speak Russian and feel they belong to the Russian culture but at the same time actively support an independent Ukraine. This is a very important phenomenon. There are some seven million ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. At least half of them, or perhaps even more, are undisguised Russian patriots of Ukraine. This is important evidence that Ukraine has come of age as modern, democratic and multiethnic society in which Russians as one of the biggest minorities play an important role.
U.W.: Is the war against Ukraine having an impact on separatist processes in Russia? Many researchers say that the encouragement, if not the organization, of a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine is going to encourage the peoples in the Russian Federation to break away. Others say, on the contrary, that the Russians are so used to a strict vertical social organization that no rapid shifts are to be expected.
I would it put it in a slightly different way. The thing is that it is very hard to see what the immediate impact on events in Russia may be today, at least by looking at objective opinion surveys. However, in the medium-term and long-term perspective, the Russian-Ukrainian war launched by Putin will almost inevitably elevate the conflict to the level of the Fourth World War which will certainly end in the aggressor’s defeat. History does not know cases when this kind of expansion, whether under the slogans of “genetic uniqueness” or “uniting a divided people”, led to the victory of the aggressor. It was always defeated, its forces destroyed and the territory it controlled prior to the armed conflict was subjected to serious divisions at the initiative of the victors. Suffice it to compare the territory of the German Empire in summer 1914 and after the First World War, the Reich’s lands as of 1 September 1939 and the German territory today, the borders of Hungary during and after the Second World War, the lands controlled by Milošević before and after the Jugoslav War and so on. Historically, aggression led to one and the same ending. This means that, by making war against Ukraine, Putin opened a Pandora’s box for Russia. With time, it will inevitably become the cause of a tragedy for the Russian people, millions of Russian citizens, and will lead to a redrawing of Russia’s borders.
Andrey Illarionov, born in 1961, is a Russian economist. He graduated from the Faculty of Economics of Leningrad State University in 1983. In 1993-94, he led the Analysis and Planning Group working for Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. In 2000-2005, he was an advisor to the President of Russian on economic issues and his representative in the G8. In December 2005, he voluntarily resigned from the office of Putin’s advisor in protest against the Kremlin’s policy. Since October 2006, Illarionov has been a senior fellow in the Centre for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC