Russia still feels like a superpower that needs to control, or at least protect the Balkans from the West, says Andrei Soldatov, a founder and an editor of the website Agentura.Ru in an interview with RFE/RL.
“The most striking example is the tough statement of then-Russian ambassador to Serbia Konuzin”, underlines Soldatov, who is an investigative journalist and Russian security services expert.
He points out that the decline of the oil and gas prices could inflict damage to Putin more than political opponents.
“Russian authorities used the budget for providing various allowances in order to maintain their positions. However, collecting revenues for the budget hinges mostly on the sale of oil and gas. If their prices plummet, it may cause big problems for the Russian authorities”, said Soldatov.
RFE/RL: The current ceasefire in Ukraine is pretty fragile. Hence, the question is how to find a political solution given this still-precarious situation.
Soldatov: The situation is fragile because we know very little about the Minsk talks at which the ceasefire was agreed. There are (unofficial reports on secret talks and conditions attached to the agreement. That poses a problem, because we are not aware of the full extent of the deal between Putin and Poroshenko.
RFE/RL: Does that mean that some concessions were made to Russia? The implementation of the trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine has been postponed until by the beginning of 2016.
Soldatov: We simply don’t know. Maybe Crimea or eastern Ukraine is part of the deal. This is a big problem because we don’t know what could undermine the Minsk agreement.
RFE/RL: Which role does the Russian military, including the Federal Secret Service (FSB), play in Eastern Ukraine?
Soldatov: The situation in Eastern Ukraine has been different from the beginning compared with that in Crimea. The campaign in Crimea was orchestrated by the Russian military, while the situation in Eastern Ukraine is absolutely different because of the involvement of political technologists, spin doctors and paramilitaries, and it is not clear who is in the control of the situation from Russia.
RFE/RL: Has Putin directly overseen the situation in Eastern Ukraine or someone from his inner circle?
Soldatov: It’s about him, his entourage, some people in security services, but their roles are not clearly defined, which is fraught with big problems. It shows in the frequent replacement of local leaders in Eastern Ukraine. For example, the mayor of Slovyansk was dismissed, and then a military leader Igor Girkin (former Russian colonel) was dismissed when he became prominent. So, nobody understands the strategy of Moscow decision makers with regard to Eastern Ukraine.
RFE/RL: Does Russia have a clear strategy with regard to Ukraine, i.e. what it wants to achieve there? Is Russia’s primary goal to stave off NATO enlargement encompassing some former Soviet republics or to avert “color” revolutions from spreading to its doorstep, or to preserve and strengthen its control in a “near abroad”, i.e. in former Soviet areas?
Soldatov: A key Russian goal is preserving control as well as finding a counterstrategy to so-called a “Western conspiracy”. To Moscow’s understanding, the West has found “magic” tools and social networks to inspire revolts and revolutions. Putin believes he has found a solution: if you overthrow a regime [loyal to Russia] near our borders we will grab the land. It should deter other countries and regimes inclined to opposition.
Everything started with Crimea. Putin devised a clear strategy for its annexation, but he lacks a strategy for Eastern Ukraine. His biggest problem is that he is focused on tactics while lacking a strategic view. He was not trained to be a strategist…. For example, the first analytical department within KGB was established only in 1989, just before the collapse of Soviet Union.
RFE/RL: Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, strengthening its presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now it steps into Ukraine. What would be Russia’s next move?
Soldatov: Russia’s politics has always been reactive, and that is the problem. For example, if something happens in Moldova, or Putin might decide to make something happen in Moldova, then a crisis would erupt in Transdienster. Or, maybe not. Maybe a crisis breaks out in another place. As I said, Putin is focused on tactics rather than on strategy.
RFE/RL: The West has imposed sanctions on Russia, but despite the damage they inflict, it appears they have not diminished the popular support for Putin, but strengthened it instead, similar to the international sanctions on Serbia in the 1990s, which played into hands of Milosevic before he was toppled eight years later. At which point could Putin’s position be endangered?
Soldatov: We should wait for a few months. I know the bankers are hoping that the sanctions will be lifted in a month or two. They calculate that, as winter approaches, the West will need to secure a supply of Russian gas. Based on this, the West would lift sanctions. However, the problem would be if sanctions remain in place. Like Putin, other members of the political and financial elite, including oligarchs, suffer from lacking strategic thinking, too.
RFE/RL: Will oligarchs, whose interests may be badly affected by Western sanctions, stand up to Putin at a certain point, or ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of economic hardship, or is the prestige of Russia as a great power of greater importance to them?
Soldatov: I think that for citizens it is still very important that Putin managed to present a new version of Russia as a powerful country that is capable of challenging the United States. This view reflects support from poor people in the countryside but also from the middle class, who feel discontent toward the West, accusing it of hypocrisy and the use of double standards. That was the case during the economic crisis in Russia in the late 1990s and the NATO air strikes on Serbia [in 1999].
Thus, Putin and his closest associates have realized that if they want to win the minds and hearts of the middle class then they should emphasize the hypocrisy of the West. Therefore, the Kremlin used the current sanctions as an example of double standards. Its argument goes that the West imposes sanctions on Russia, although Moscow is fighting the fascists in Ukraine. This story will hold water for a while.
RFE/RL: The narrative of Russia as a "besieged fortress" still resonates with many of its citizens. In an effort to stave off Western influence, Moscow has been trying to restrict communications on the Internet.
Soldatov: Moscow fears that Washington finds a way to influence public opinion in Russia, primarily through social networks, encouraging public discontent. Therefore, the Kremlin is considering measures to prevent the influence of the West. These efforts have been intensified following the opposition protests in Moscow in the past two years. The goal is to intimidate citizens, especially the middle class, and at the same time instigate self-censorship. Restrictions on the internet are the most effective way to achieve both.
In Russia there are many repressive laws regulating the Internet, which are being enacted almost every two months, so people always expect that new government measures will be more rigorous than the previous ones. In such circumstances, the small communities of liberal-minded citizens are very vulnerable.
RFE/RL: Who can question Putin's position? Ordinary citizens who shoulder the brunt of a growing crisis, a few liberals or oligarchs because of the negative effects of sanctions? Is it possible the transition of power was modeled on Yeltsin's withdrawal when Putin came to power?
Soldatov: The current oligarchs are different compared with those in the 1990s. They are dependent on the state budget. Putin has managed, in a way, to recreate the Soviet economy in Russia. Oligarchs, especially those operating in the metals industry, receive funds from the budget, more specifically from a part earmarked for the military-industrial complex.
RFE/RL: Does this mean that Putin’s power will remain unquestioned for years to come, or can it be endangered by unexpected twists of events?
Soldatov: Decline of the oil and gas prices could inflict damage. Russian authorities used the budget for providing various allowances in order to maintain their positions. However, collecting revenues for the budget hinges mostly on the sale of oil and gas. If their prices plummet, it may cause big problems for the Russian authorities.
RFE/RL: Could it mean that Russia will not cut the gas supply to Europe this winter as a retaliatory measure for Western sanctions?
Soldatov: No, I don’t think Russia will do it.
RFE/RL: One gets the impression that the Kremlin definitely steers away from the West, except in economic cooperation, and turns to Asia, first of all China, as its geostrategic priority.
Soldatov: Putin has long strived to strengthen ties with China at all costs. In this context, he played a crucial role in forming the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in order to create a regional alliance that includes some other countries. However, it’s quite obvious that China extracts more profit than Russia does. I’m skeptical of this orientation, but Putin still appears optimistic.
RFE/RL: Putin visited Belgrade where he, among others, attended the military parade marking 70 years of Belgrade’s liberation with the help of the Red Army. Russia is seeking to maintain its influence in the Balkans, especially in Serbia, even while Balkan countries are applying for EU membership. However, Serbia tries to maintain good relations with Moscow because it depends on Russian gas and Moscow’s support in the Security Council in blocking Kosovo’s admission to the UN. For that reason, Serbia walks a tightrope between Russia and the EU over the Ukrainian crisis. What is the key Russian interest in the Balkans?
Soldatov: Russia still feels like a superpower that needs to control, or at least protect the Balkans from the West. The most striking example is the tough statement of then-Russian ambassador to Serbia [Aleksandr] Konuzin, who blasted the West at an international conference in Belgrade three years ago.