Russia Feels Threatened

Sławomir Sierakowski speaks to Fyodor Lukyanov about Vladimir Putin’s leadership and Russian foreign policy.

Sławomir Sierakowski: For some time, Russia has been developing a new ideology similar to Sovietology, or in this case Putinology. The greatest political thinkers – Ivan Krastev, Joseph Nye and Adam Michnik – are trying to figure out his personality and thereby predict what Russia is going to do. According to you, who is Putin?

Fyodor Lukyanov: We live in such unpredictable and chaotic times that the personality of our leaders plays a more important role than usual. Leaders operate in a reality which is much more chaotic than before. Therefore it has a greater impact on them. Putin is just one example – another good one is Barack Obama. If you want to understand US policy, you have to concentrate on understanding Obama.

 That is interesting, because Obama has been accused of doing much less than was expected of him. This is explained by the fact that he couldn’t due to circumstance, rather than him personally not wanting to.

I think that Obama acted how he wanted. Of course, he was also blocked by circumstances – first of all by the economic crisis, later by Congress etc. But the truth is that, to whatever extent you take into account the circumstances, it is also a political decision and it says a lot about personality politics.

Fyodor Lukyanov
is the editor-in-chief of the magazine “Russia in Global Affairs”, chairman of the Presidium Council for Foreign and Defense policy. He is also the program director of the Valdai conference – one of the most important cyclical events during which Vladimir Putin and other Russian politicians meet with intellectuals from Russia and abroad.

Is Putin a typical Russian leader who is continuing the line of Peter the Great, or in other words: ‘despotic modernization’? Or on the other hand, is he a postmodern leader, without a concrete ideology?

Of course you cannot compare Putin to Peter the Great or Stalin. To label his politics as ‘despotic modernization’, there must be a will to modernize, which there isn’t. There is also no talk of despotism in Russia. The current time is the most liberal era in our history. Therefore I would not say that Putin is a typical Russian leader. Putin is a typical Russian citizen. And this is key. Putin is representative as a product of Russian society. Most Russians believe that Putin is ‘one of us’. Yes, he is also seen as an emperor, situated unimaginably far away from the common man, but that is more about how he is perceived, and not who he actually is. Russians do not look at him as the head of state, but as someone who understands the everyday Russian.

So who is a typical Russian?

I’ll give you an example. It was in 2015, at the famous Valdai conference, Russia. Someone asked Putin whether or not he was afraid of the same suffering and consequences as a result of Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine as the Soviet Union faced in Afghanistan. Putin replied: “The streets taught me a simple rule – if the fight is unavoidable, make sure you hit first.” This is precisely what a typical Russian considers to be normal human behavior.

And is that fight unavoidable today?

With regards to my example, it was about the fight against terrorists. About the fact that terrorism has to be fought where the terrorists live, before they come to us. In this way, Putin was able to justify Russian involvement in Syria.

 Is Putin not paranoid? The war Russia is fighting against the anti-Assad rebels and against ISIS was not unavoidable for Russia. It only is now, since they themselves went there.

I do not know whether Putin is paranoid, but without a doubt he considers the external surroundings of Russia as a source of potential danger. Therefore I do not think that he directs his foreign policy according to some sort of plan. He is not some outstanding strategist, as some consider him to be, but that is not because he is stupid. Putin believes that a plan is unnecessary because plans do not make sense in such an unpredictable reality as the present. You can come up with a strategy today, then tomorrow it will no longer be applicable. The only thing that matters is the ability to be able to immediately respond to any change and to exploit every opportunity.

But only in terms of the military?

Not only, but that is an important element for Russia.

After all, you are a nuclear power. What are you afraid of?

That is a very good question. And a key issue in understanding modern Russia. Although Russia is a nuclear power, it feels threatened. Threatened that it will be attacked by surprise.

Really? Is this not more about some sort of sense of dignity? Whereas in fact, you want others to be afraid of you.

When the Russian state collapsed in 1991, it had to let go of its geostrategic position. During this time, it was just looking at the expansion of its traditional enemies. This caused feelings of being under siege. So it seemed to us that all we had to protect ourselves with nuclear weapons.

What mission does Putin have in mind to transform Russia?

Putin is not a politician of flesh and blood. Yeltsin was like that. He was obsessed with power, sought it at any cost and knew how to do it. He gave up only when he was a ruined man, kept alive by artificial support. Then along came Putin, dragged into the position of prime minster and yet nobody in Russia knew who he was, beyond the narrow political elite. Later on, he of course learned a lot and he surely even enjoyed what he was doing, which is connected to being a politician.

Western politicians, amongst others, tend to be fascinated by Putin as an example of a politician who knows wants he wants and who acts decisively. 

This perception of Putin is a function of the political crisis in the west.

Some experts believe that Putin’s main motivation is personal greed. In Poland, a thick biography of Putin, written by Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich was just published. It reads like an account of bribes and stolen state property which Putin or his KGB men from St Petersburg were responsible for. Could this be the main reason for his involvement in politics?

What nonsense. Yes, at some stage in his career, in the 90s, Putin would have certainly wanted to accumulate the greatest amount of assets via illegal methods. But that was the norm in Russia. It is how the country was managed on every level. It is important to understand what impact this phenomenon really had on Putin.

Of course he then learned politics and acquired the skills that were needed at that time. When he got into power, he began to transform the system. Then, we had the oligarchic regime, but now the oligarchs are subordinate to the state. This system is economically inefficient, but Russia has always been so. Here the state has always been a major player in the economy. The oligarchs do not think every day about what else they can steal. The majority of them even have a sense of an exact mission – the building of a new Russia.

Does Abramowicz have this sense of mission?

Abramowicz is from the previous era. I am talking about those who come from the same environment as Putin; from the KGB and St. Petersburg.

Although Russia is a nuclear power, it feels threatened. Threatened that it will be attacked by surprise.

For example?

For example Vladimir Yakunin [who up until 2015 was the president of the Russian Railways and who has been subject to sanctions following the annexation of Crimea], Arkady Rotenberg [owner of the company SMG which builds gas and oil pipelines, who has also been subject to sanctions], Igor Sechin [president of Rosneft, also subject to sanctions], Gennady Timchenko [owner of the Volga Group, subject to sanctions], as well as others. In this, there is an exact philosophy. It is about how Russia went through the same process that South Korea and Japan went through 40 or 50 years prior, where economic development was based on state-controlled corporations. This illusion is deeply rooted in local intellectual debates. This, combined with the specific life experiences acquired from being in the KGB amongst the people around Putin, creates an interesting phenomenon.

Putin has started to get rid of people from his closest circle. Yakunin, who you already mentioned, is no longer the director of Russian Railways. A few days ago Sergei Ivanov-Putin’s closest associate, the head of his office, which is de facto the most important office in the state – resigned. Recently Andrej Bielaninov, the head of the customs service lost his job.

Putin carries out generational changes.

What kind of a generational change includes appointing his personal body-guards to the position of the governors of Russian provinces?

You know, in this country the transition from the position of a leader’s body guard to that of a governor is not quite a promotion. It seems to me that Putin wants to organise a new power elite around him. Each of his terms as leader has looked different and now we also have to deal with a new chapter.

But Sergei Ivanov, an ex-KGB general, a master of intelligence, is now to be the President’s representative for wildlife, ecology and transport. This surely looks like a degradation.

You shouldn’t forget that in this environment, specific loyalties derived from services apply. Ivanov is no longer so young. Also, you cannot immediately rule out anything which comes out from some other high office.

Who are the five most important figures within the Russian ruling elite today?

In Russia you do not need to count to five. There is only one important figure.

Joseph Nye believes that Russia is heading towards a long-term decline and on the way it will be a threat to the West. Do you agree with this diagnosis?

At this moment in Russia there is momentous change. So far Russia has been focused on Europe and this is what is changing. Up until the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s ambition was to become a sort of extension of the West. Although this was most directly expressed during the 90s, this trend has been maintained by Putin. The message was this: we want to be Europe. Do not teach us how to be Europe. We will do it our own way. But we want to be like you, a part of the West.

The entire modern history of Russia is a dispute between Slavophiles and Westernizers…

It was totally pointless. The debate was abruptly settled after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was completely won by the Westernizers.

During a lecture in Kiev, Aleksander Kwaśniewski said that the day will come when Russia will be a member of the European Union.

The crisis which the European Union has fallen into means that it is no longer seen as an icon for Russia. Europe is no longer attractive. Now it is seen as being purely instrumental. As well as being an enemy of Russia.

So where will Russia direct its attention now? Towards China? Central Asia?

 Central Asia is a joke.

If the EU is weak, then it might be more attractive for Russia because Russia can play it. On the other hand, China is getting stronger. The best example of this was seen in the energy contract which Russia signed with China, agreeing to huge concessions. China does not appear to be a great opportunity for Russia.

That is true. China does not offer any opportunities for Russia. After the moment of euphoria that we felt after signing this agreement, we all realized what the balance of power between China and Russia really looked like. But I am not talking about the choice of direction. I mean that Russia does not yet want to look towards anyone. It is such a big and important country, that it should not stand in line to join the European Union or anyone else.

What about the possibility to become a normal, predictable, peaceful partner of the European Union with mutual benefit?

In theory. But Russia cannot accept the situation of an absence of a partnership between the EU and Russia.

 Relations deteriorated after the invasion of Ukraine. Previously, the EU was ready to accept almost anything, including the dismantling of Russian democracy.

It has also turned out that the Union itself has serious problems with democracy, as is best seen in Poland or Hungary. There is a lack of wanting to form a partnership due to concerns over matters such as standards in the economy. These for example are technical matters. Russia still has to adapt to the EU criteria on how cars are made, on air traffic control rules, etc.

Well what is surprising about that? If you want to sell something on the European market or use European airspace, then adapting to local standards is not an attack on your personal dignity.

But it is the basic concept on which the European Union and the West operate on – the creation of standards and then the exporting of them to the rest of the world. Russia does not want to import them.

Europe is no longer attractive. Now it is seen as being purely instrumental. As well as being an enemy of Russia.

What does Putin intend to do in Ukraine?

He had a plan for the first stage – that was to seize Crimea. And that was it. The fall of Mr Yanukovich was a hugely significant defeat for Russia – the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union, so Putin had to react. Of course, the reason for this was not due to the situation of the ethnic Russians nor to safeguard the Russian language. An adequate reason was the real fear that the new authorities in Ukraine would sooner or later throw us and our Black Sea fleet out of Sevastopol. This is a situation which no Russian leader can accept. The issue surrounding Crimea is indisputable in this country. All of the rest can be negotiated. In my opinion Russia will now try to implement the Minsk agreement on acceptable terms, that means withdrawal from the front line in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in order to reach an agreement that allows them to save face.

Putin just announced that he would not participate in a round of talks regarding the situation in Ukraine in the format of Normandy: i.e. comprising of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.

But he could not do that due to the latest Ukrainian provocations in Crimea and Russian fatalities.

Provocations in which only Russians believe. The victims of the Ukrainian side still fall on the Ukrainian side in Donbas.

But it is Donbas and there is a military conflict. In the case of what happened in Crimea, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the Ukrainian and Russian version of events. Maybe the mission of those people who caught the Russians in Crimea was not inspired by the Ukrainian authorities, but without a doubt some provocative initiatives have occurred by the Ukrainian side.

After the withdrawal from Donbas, will Russia come to terms with Ukrainian sovereignty?

What do you mean by sovereignty?

Put simply, I understand sovereignty as Ukraine being able to decide on its domestic and foreign policy by itself.

Do you think that Ukraine is independent from the West?

I think so. Ukraine is seeking help from the West, but that does not mean that someone from the West is imposing their own policies which Ukraine has to follow.

 For a sovereign country, there are a particularly large amount of foreign politicians and advisers there.

That is true, there are a lot, but Leszek Balcerowicz and others were invited by the Ukrainians.

Who invited him? The Ukrainian people? Yatsenyuk invited him.

And he was democratically elected by the Ukrainians.

But when he left his office, polls indicated that he only had the support of 3%.

In a democracy politicians are chosen in elections, not in polls.

If we are to talk seriously, then we cannot assume that Ukraine is a country which is able to decide for itself about itself.

Moving on. How has Moscow received the change of power in Poland and the election of Jarosław Kaczyński?

I don’t think that anyone here cares.

My guess is that it is not the main concern for Russia. But in one of your seven palaces of culture – which are even bigger than our one here in Warsaw – you can find the ministry of foreign affairs and there is at least one room there which is dedicated to Poland. What has come from that relationship?

Russian experts from both the right and the left agree that the EU is heading towards total institutional paralysis. This applies to relations between and within countries as well as between societies and policies.

The biggest problem with this lies with the bureaucrats, because they know that now they will be unable to settle even the smallest matters with the Polish side. A good example of this is the suspension of the local border traffic on the Poland-Kaliningrad border. Of course, the fact that Poland applies itself to the paralysis of the European Union rather than to Russian politicians is not a concern. But it has turned out that everyone is doing this today, even the most important countries in the Union. It is sufficient enough to mention Brexit. Experts here from both the right and the left agree that the EU is heading towards total institutional paralysis. This applies to relations between and within countries as well as between societies and policies. This is partly why Putin is so popular in the West.

Almost all of the extreme right groups in the EU are pro-Kremlin. If they start to win elections, what kind of consequences do you expect?

 The problem of the EU lies in the fact that even if the populists will not win the elections, politicians will be forced to implement the program of the populist parties.

Just like Cameron implemented Nigel Farage’s plan of withdrawing the UK from the EU. Do you believe that Donald Trump will be victorious in the USA?

No. But then again, I have to admit that I did not believe Brexit would happen. Instead, I do agree with those who believe that we are dealing with a paradigm change in policy. It probably worried you to hear what Trump said in an interview in ‘The New York Times’ in response to the question of whether the US would help Estonia if it was attacked. But did he not say exactly the same thing as the US presidents before him had said? Obama also criticized the fact that America pays for Europe’s security. I think that ordinary Americans also don’t understand this. The earlier activism in foreign policy and the military interventions by American leaders were previously tolerated. Everything indicates that this is no longer the case, regardless of whether Trump wins or not. Hilary Clinton will also have to withdraw part of the US’s commitment to European security.

And you say these words right after the NATO summit in Warsaw, where Americans agreed to deploy their battalions, on a rotational basis, to Poland. Does Russia believe that someone would defend Estonia, or Poland if it was attacked by little green men speaking Russian?

Yes, I believe it. In Russia, people treat NATO very seriously. There is no doubt towards Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits the allies to mutual defense.

It seems that Russia treats NATO more seriously than NATO does itself.

Exactly. This is because, as we have seen, in Russia there is no shortage of people with paranoia and there is a fear there that not only NATO will intervene in the case of an attack on Estonia or Latvia, but the West will itself provoke a war there with Russia.

Does Putin think this too?

No. But on the other hand, he is convinced of the effectiveness of Article 5.

In Poland, the Smolensk disaster is still very important. Is Russia deliberately not giving us the plane wreck in order to antagonize the Polish political elite?

I have said to several Russian officials that it would be a smart move to return the wreckage now to Poland. Well, to this government, not the previous one [laughs]. But that has not happened. The reason for this is simple. This government would declare, the very next day, that as a result of a special investigation that has been scientifically proven, they are beyond doubt that we are dealing with an assassination.

They don’t need the wreck for that.

That is true.


Sławomir Sierakowski
Born in 1979, Sławomir Sierakowski is a Polish sociologist and political commentator. He is a founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), an Eastern European movement of liberal intellectuals, artists and activists, with branches in Ukraine and Russia. He is also the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and the president of the Stanislaw Brzozowski Association, overseeing its publishing house, its online opinion site, cultural centers in Warsaw, Gdansk, Lodz and Cieszyn, in Poland, and in Kiev, Ukraine, and 20 local clubs.