Brian Whitmore: “Putin wants to party like it is 1815”

19 May 2019, 09:00

What is current position of Russian government toward Western countries, do you see any changes in last year? Which goals has Kremlin?


– I think Russian policy toward West is remarkably consistent. To put it in simplest terms, Russia wants to break the European Union, Russia wants to break up NATO. In toward this they are weaponizing everything effort disposal whether it is corruption to create network of influence in the West, whether it is via support for far-right and far-left parties in Europe and North America. But the goal is very clear – the European Union represents, in the eyes of the Kremlin, as an existential threat. It has this model of horizontal integration, where all the countries are coequal, and they are choosing to integrate.  This is offensive to the Russians, they don’t think this is how world is supposed to work. By their opinion the world is supposed to work as a great powers tell small countries what to do. A strong vertical. That is the world they want to see. Putin wants to party like it is 1815, he wants to return to this XIX century world of great powers. And the EU, its model is very strange to them and frightening.  It stands as the sharp contrast to the kind of kleptocratic, authoritarian corrupted regime you see in the Kremlin. And as the result it is a magnet for Russian neighbors, you know this here in Ukraine. But also for more progressive elements inside the Russian society, so it represents kind of domestic threat to Putin. So for this reason they made a decision, that they need do everything in their power to undermine or break the European Union. The same holds true for NATO. They want to separate the United States from Europe, separate North America from Western Europe, break up the North Atlantic Alliance. They want to return to world, where there is no big alliances, governed by rules and values. The Russian don’t like things like that. This is the policy toward the West and it remains unchanged, I don’t expect it to change. I think we need to gear ourselves for a long conflict with a revanchist Russia.


A new Cold War?


– It is not a Cold War in the classical sense. In the Cold War we have two systems, hermetically sealed from each other, two blocks, locked into their own systems. This is different, it is a struggle between two normative systems. You have West, which is based on the rule of law, the rights of individual, the sanctity of contracts, the accountability of power. And you have East, based on kleptocracy, patron-client relationships, the marriage of money and power, the subordination of law to power. Unlike the Cold War, they are integrated into each other, competing in this kind of integrated globalized world. The sense what you have in the East, is what emigrated Russian political scientist Alena Ledeneva has called “Systema”. Systema is this whole network, always governed Russia from the great Dutchee of Moskovia through the Russian Empire and Soviet Union to the post Soviet Union times. And what we see under Putin right now, is only a Putin’s version of Systema. But what Putin has done with Systema is he is externalized it. During the Soviet time Systema was contained inside the Iron Curtain. Now in this globalized post-Soviet world he spreads this all around the world. All around you can spread corrupted network, you can spread Systema. You can spread it all the way in the North America. And this is the danger. I mean in lot of ways corruption is a new communism. The Kremlin’s black cash is a new Red Menace. Systema is a new Leninism. Communism had its faults and we don’t have to go in to these faults at least with playing to higher human ideals. Corruption is very powerful, because it plays to most basic human instinct – greed. Therefore it is very powerful and dangerous. We have to look at corruption now as a national security issue.  I’m trying to push this in the West, we have to really think about it. When we, westerners, come here and saying: “Ukrainians, do something with corruption” I say it in a different way, like we all need to do something with corruption. We are all Ukrainians in this fight. Because corruption is a security issue and it is damaging your security and our security too. It is really the struggle of our time. So this is Russian approach to West. And it remains unchanged and it is gonna be a problem after Putin is gone as well. Because Putin will go, but Systema will remain. If Putin’s regime falls, it will be replaced with something very similar. What Ukraine is trying to do right now is actually really important, because it is trying to break out from Systema. And Systema is fighting back, trying to keep you back inside. If you can get out of this into the western Rule of law-based system it will be a huge geopolitical development. 


During Cold War the West has given all power to fight against communism. Why we don’t see same level of efforts to fight corruption?


– It is harder to get people. The communism you can present as maniac in the battle between forces of Light and forces of Darkness. That was an easier sell to the publics. A lot of us are doing our best to make this point. When I’m saying that corruption is a new communism, I’m trying in a sense brand this, to make people think about it this way. Ukraine wouldn’t have corruption here if the West didn’t enable it.  If Western banks would not laundering dirty money, you wouldn’t have these problems. We are complicit in the corruption in Ukraine, because first we have to clean up our own system, these things like shell companies, money laundering, offshores. All things, which are enabling corruption, they are in the West. 


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If we look to other side of the globe – what is Russian approach to Eastern countries, like China and Japan?


– I find the Sino-Russian relationship interesting. There are never been really a lasting Sino-Russian alliance. It is always running to problems. There is a very simple reason for that. Neither Russia, nor China is going to agree to be a junior partner in a relationship. So right now, due to Russian conflict with the West, it is running to China. But let’s face it, Russia is a junior partner in that case. The Chinese are not making it sound that way, because they are clever and they wanna be careful about insulting the Russians. Russia has a GDP which is smaller than state of Texas, China has a second largest GDP in the world. Their military power is incomparable too. It clear who is a senior partner. If you look on what is actually going on in a Sino- Russian relationship – the Chinese are buying Russian gas and oil at very cheap price, because Cinese know that they can dictate the price. China is using Russia as a supplier of very cheap raw materials. Sooner or later you gonna have this backlash among the Russians toward this relationship, because they not getting the good end of the deal. And we already starting to see that the public is getting angry about this. Chinese bottling plant near lake Baykal could be an example. The production had to stop, because of serious demonstrations. There was a website, where locals were seriously proposing throwing garbage into lake Baykal to prevent the Chinese from taking water from it. So we can see the beginning of this backlash. I don’t see this relationship lasting, but right now Moskow needs an ally and need to sell gas somewhere. 

With Japan I see some kind of traditional efforts to drive a wadge between the Western allies in any way possible and they are trying to play that. The Russia-Japan relationships can only go so far, because the Japan wants the Northern Islands back and Kremlin is not gonna giving up territory. There was lot of excitement during last meeting of Prime Minister Abe and President Putin, but I was skeptical. Because Russia will not give up their territory and Japan will not drop this issue. 


Which developments of security situation could be possible in Middle East?


– When Russia first got involved in Syria, what I thought they were doing was basically creating a bargaining chip. That was something important to the West, they going to be make a problems by themselves and hope to bargain that for a freehand in Ukraine, for example. It turns out, that they had much bigger plans, than I have initially suspected. What I see now is Russia attempting to regain its influence in parts of the world, where the Soviet Union had its power. They are trying to put back together their alliances in the Middle East. And we see them now expand their influence in Lybia. With the Saudis there is an attempt to keep the oil prices high, I don’t see their interest is going beyond that. And they are also trying to trolls America, because they deal with traditional security and defence partner of USA in the region. These developments in the Middle East are also a part of Putin’s general strategy of creating this alliance of rogues around the world. Whether we are talking about Venezuela, North Korea, Syria all this is kind of alliance of rogue states, that Putin is pulling together. 

We see that developments in the Middle East, but also in the Latin America as well. When you look at propaganda that Russia is using in Venezuela it is very interesting. Part of it is a traditional Russian playbook: the West is sponsoring colour revolutions, West is destabilizing the country with colour revolution. On my opinion we should be able to fight back against that very easily. Lets get some Ukrainians to explain the Venezuelans, yes, the Americans were supporting colour revolutions and we are very thankful for that. But Kremlin plays also about the very real history of American intervention in Latin America. This region is tough for US, because there is this history. And unlike this part of the world, in Eastern Europe, where American involvement is seen as largely as a bennoying, in Latin America it is not. So in pushing back against this propaganda in Latin America we have to be very mindful of this history. Also what we see from Russian side it is basically showing to the United States – we can play around in your backyard. We can play around in Ukraine, now we can do this also in Venezuela. They don’t even suggest, that this two cases are equal. Because the way I see the Western influence in Ukraine – it is to support the democratic will of the Ukrainian people. In Venezuela we see Putin supporting a dictator, who the people wanna overthrow. I think that will be a losing game in the end. 


Do you think the military intervention by Kremlin is possible?


– It could be some Latin America equivalent of “little green men”. Russia is sending this special operation teams into countries, which are experienced in popular uprising. This teams are training locals for put down colour revolutions. We can call them anti-colour revolution spetznaz. They are in Syria, they are in Venezuela as well. So I think we will see thing like this. Some kind of full-scale military intervention is less possible, also because of logistic issues. Proximity does mean a lot. Russia can project power further than they could do ten years ago, but still it is difficult. I’m confident that in Venezuela, Moscow is on the wrong side of history. It is similar to situation here, in Ukraine. They are  supporting a dictator, when people have clearly made a choice of what they want. But that fact don’t mean that they can not damage in the short run. 


You have mentioned Ukraine, can we expect some changes in Russian policy after the elections?


– Russian strategic goal remains unchanged regardless of the results. Russia wants to keep your country in its sphere of influence to prevent Ukraine from kind of realizing its Euro-Atlantic choice, that the society has clearly made. They don’t really seem to understand that this country has made a choice and that choice is final. They will continue to put the pressure on Ukraine in the number of different ways. They can turn the war up or turn down if they need this. They can use their influence trough oligarchic channels, trough non-kinetic means, like corruption and disinformation and I think they will continue to do this.  I’m very curious to see, how they will react to a Zelenskiy presidency, what kind of actions you gonna see. What I’m confident in is a trajectory of the society. Since the independence it is toward West, sometimes two steps ahead, and then one point nine back, but the direction is clear. And I believe this remains unchanged, regardless who the president of Ukraine is or what Russia does. Any Russian imperial project always begins with Ukraine, but not ends with Ukraine.

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What can we expect from Russian ally, Belarus? 


– The Russian-Belarusian relationship is very interesting. It is kind of dysfunctional marriage. Because Lukashenko sees that relationship as transactional – you pay me, and I am your ally. Russia sees this relationship as an imperial – I’m the big brother, you are the little and you do as I told you. This kind of tension is actual for the entire Putin’s presidency. Putin and Lukashenko reportedly do not like each other one bit. We are getting to the point now, where this dysfunctional marriage is reaching crisis point. Russia would like to turn Belarus into an extension of Western military district, while Lukashenko is resisting. He does not want Belarusian soil to be used as a staging ground to attack ant third country. And there is a lot of talks in Russian media and on Telegram channels, that are famous for the Kremlins leaks about the possibility of an “Anschluss”.  Does this mean, that this is gonna happen – no. Same time such scenario would be a security nightmare for the West, because it brings Russian military power right up to the borders of NATO. With not to mention what it does to Ukraine security. Si it is something we need to keep our eye on and treating very seriously. In many wargames the first step is a coup in Belarus to replace Lukashenko with a KGB general, who invites Russian troops. That is not an accident. And that could be kind of indicator.  And it also potentially could help Putin to solve domestic political problems. Lukashenko is not into this, he doesn’t want to do this. So he has been playing this game between Russia and West, very clever up till now. And I’m getting the sense, that Russians are getting tired of this game.  Putin is know to consider Ukraine and Belarus to be fake states. He is wrong, but this is how he sees the world, he finds independence of both of the states as an offensive. Other big question here – what the West can do, how much influence we have. The situation is tricky. Lukashenko is never gonna be a friend. So it is a dilemma for the West



Brian Whitmore is a Senior Fellow & Director of the Russia Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Before joining CEPA he was Senior Russia Analyst at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. He also worked as a foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe in Moscow and Prague; as a graduate instructor in the Department of Government and International Studies at the University of South Carolina; and as a visiting lecturer in the History Faculty at Mechnikov National University in Odesa.

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