The World Cup in Russia, which only very thinly masked the crisis between Russia and the European Union, is over. I spoke with Jens Siegert, former executive director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Moscow and head of the Goethe-Institut Moscow’s EU-funded project ‘Public Diplomacy. EU and Russia’, about current EU-Russia relations; Russia’s interests, power politics and the sanctions imposed on it; and the annexation of Crimea.
How would you describe current relations between Russia and the EU?
Is this the result of a clash between two different ideological systems?
Not really. The conflict between Russia’s authoritarian, populist system and the liberal democratic model is above all an instrument of Russian self-assertion. Russia is driven neither by a particular ideology, nor by a well-formulated counter-concept to the West as it was during the Soviet era. Its political system revolves around Putin and his desire to stay in power – hence the lack of ideological clarity. And as a result, the debate in Russia is less focused on ideology, instead focusing on geopolitics and power politics.
From Ukraine and Syria to electoral influence, Russia is very active in geopolitical terms. Is there a grand strategy behind this?
I don’t believe Russia has developed some sort of offensive plan to expand its power. Quite the contrary – it’s behaving rather more defensively. But this can certainly include taking advantage of any opportunities that may arise, such as the annexation of Crimea. In today’s Russia the dominant narrative is that the country was weak in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and had to make a lot of compromises, but now Russia is strong again and history can be revised.
At the same time, however, the Kremlin fears (and some are convinced) that the West has a grand strategy aimed at overthrowing the Russian regime. The Russians interpreted the Maidan revolution in Ukraine as more than just an intra-Ukrainian affair – more as a kind of dress rehearsal for regime change in Russia. The Georgian ‘Rose Revolution’ with Mijeíl Saakashvili and the end of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia were similarly interpreted. From Russia’s point of view, therefore, interference in the internal affairs of other states, for instance in the US or French elections, is firstly a form of pre-emptive self-defence. And secondly, they believe their actions to be justified because the Kremlin is only doing what the West does. The Russian narrative traces a very Darwinian image of international politics, in which nations fight against each other to survive and where almost anything is permissible.
If Russia considers its actions to be defensive while the West sees them as offensive, would you not say that an escalation in the relationship is inevitable?
No. The West now understands the situation quite well but has nevertheless underestimated Russia. The extent to which this is true, and for how long it will remain the case, is another question altogether in the Trump era. Many mistakenly believed that an escalation in the relationship with Russia could be avoided by simply not responding, or by being conciliatory. But those who don’t fight back are perceived as weak by the Russian mainstream; the understanding is that every compromise must be fought for. Figuratively speaking, you can’t reach a compromise without getting (and giving) a bloody nose.
What role does NATO play in this context? To what extent is NATO becoming less relevant with regard to Russia given Trump’s ambivalence towards NATO?
NATO, or rather the US and NATO, is the only military alliance that is currently able to act as something of a counterweight to Russia’s nuclear weapons potential. Given that the current Russian leadership basically sees international politics as a competition of major powers, with medium-sized and smaller countries playing a subordinate role, we really can’t do without its protection. Russia does not hesitate to use its military capabilities for political purposes, and opposition to this within Russian public opinion is non-existent. As a result, Trump poses a direct threat to the independence of the EU. Not as a possible hegemon, but rather because a US withdrawal or an agreement with Russia over the heads of its European NATO allies would deliver them, rather defenceless, into Russian hands. For historical reasons, this is far better understood in the east and north of the EU than in the west and the south. In the US, as the negative reactions to the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki in mid-July have shown, there are still enough opposing forces on both sides of the aisle – for the time being, at least. In these turbulent times, however, this can no longer be held as self-evident. EU member states have no choice but to improve their own defence capabilities as quickly and as sustainably as possible.
Russia’s hardness obviously also comes from the fear of showing weakness. The classic social democrat would say that Russia should be approached for this very reason.
Yes, but this will only work if it is a joint effort. It is only possible to have a sense of security and trust if this is shared. If the West makes concessions to Russia during a period of conflict, this will be interpreted as a weakness and exploited again at the next opportunity. Then the previous compromise doesn’t count anymore. According to the predominant mindset in Russia, a compromise is always only a snapshot of the current balance of power. If the balance of power changes, the compromise is forfeited and the stronger party has the right of appeal, also in moral terms. This is precisely the background to the violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances on the denuclearisation of Ukraine in the course of the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.
In order to find a way out of a possible spiral of escalation, both sides need to be involved – both need to want this to happen. And at present, I don’t see that on the Russian side. Russia feels like it’s on the winning side while the West is falling apart. Why should it compromise? The first task is to counter this impression.
The EU recently prolonged its sanctions for the annexation of Crimea and for the war in eastern Ukraine. What are your thoughts on these sanctions?
The sanctions were imposed after the annexation of Crimea, and when it seemed that military escalation in Ukraine might be possible. At that time, the Russian leadership obviously assumed that a unified reaction from the EU would not be forthcoming, that the EU member states would not be able to agree on a course of action. That was a fallacy. Both rounds of sanctions are important as an expression of a strongly united Europe. I believe that this made a significant contribution to the fact that the war in eastern Ukraine has not spread further. The political signal sent by these sanctions is therefore even greater than their economic impact.
How likely is it that the EU member states will continue to present a united front and stand by the sanctions? Or is their unity crumbling?
Of course, there’s always a risk that the sanctions will be either lifted or weakened. Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini has reiterated that he would like the sanctions to be lifted in December. Austria’s governing ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) and FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) are also steering a course that is not exactly critical of the Kremlin. Germany is also not totally immune to this. If Chancellor Merkel was to resign for whatever reason, then I no longer see Germany standing so clearly by the sanctions. The personal contribution of Mrs Merkel is really significant here.
Any threat to the sanctions would, however, be a huge mistake in my view – it would be a clear sign to the Russian government of the EU’s weakness, and would invite Moscow to do something risky.
But just how realistic is the possibility of getting Crimea back? Henry Kissinger says we should just accept that Crimea belongs to Russia.
It clearly isn’t very realistic to think that something will shift in the short term. The West will not give military support to Crimea and on the Russian side a return is totally unimaginable. The Russian leadership and Putin personally have associated a great deal of prestige with the annexation of Crimea and have had a lot of public success as a result of it.
But this doesn’t mean that the EU’s current position on the recognition of Crimea should simply be abandoned. There’s a whole string of conflicts that have been going on for decades. Let’s just look at Cyprus. The EU does not recognise Northern Cyprus as an independent state and even admitted the south of the island, the Republic of Cyprus, in contravention of its own rule on the admission of states with border disputes. The annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union after the Second World War was never recognised by the West. But that did not stop it having diplomatic and trading relations with the Soviet Union, and, somewhat later, discussing disarmament. We also do not recognise areas such as Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, although the likelihood that these conflicts will be resolved in the foreseeable future and that they will be returned to Moldova and Georgia respectively is extremely low.
How is Russia’s foreign policy seen by its population?
The Kremlin has successfully established the narrative that Russia is surrounded by enemies from whom it must defend itself. Add to that the annexation of Crimea, after which Putin could portray himself as the ‘gatherer of the Russian lands’, and as the one who finally ‘showed’ the US (and the West in general) after almost three decades of weakness. As a result, there is a great deal of support for the country’s foreign policy. This also generates much of Putin’s legitimacy, especially against the backdrop of the country’s economic problems.
Does this international prestige fill the legitimacy gap created by the country’s economic difficulties?
There has certainly been a shift. For various reasons, there was a strong economic recovery from 1999 onwards and this lent Putin a large share of his legitimacy. But not only that; Putin brought the Russian state back into operation in a whole range of areas. An implicit social contract developed from this in the 2000s: Putin and his regime saw to it that the economic situation improved, and that the lives of as many people as possible in Russia got a little better every year. In return, the Russian population refrained from getting involved politically. And here, unlike in the Soviet Union, the state did not interfere in the private lives of its people. In the 2000s, you could love, live, work, and travel how and where you liked in Russia. While the Soviet Union demanded ideological loyalty, Russia under Putin did not – and it worked well.
But then came the 2008-2009 economic crisis. This hit Russia very hard, and then sanctions were imposed. Since then, the Russian economy has not really recovered. And the people certainly noticed: wages fell sharply. Putin really couldn’t draw much legitimacy from this economic slowdown – and then came Crimea.
With the annexation of Crimea, the source of Russian national loyalty has shifted from the economic realm to that of foreign policy. This created a sense of national pride, yes, but also pride in the fact that Russia has caught up with the West, and indeed that the West is finally afraid of Russia.
Is this a helpful perspective from which to analyse the 2018 presidential election, and does this explain why there were no protests, unlike in 2012?
Without a doubt. The 2012 protests had a lot to do with the change from President Medvedev back to Putin. In response to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, then-president Medvedev proposed a programme of modernisation; Russia had to modernise. But practically nothing came out of it, and then Putin’s return was announced in autumn 2011. This was a source of great disappointment, especially among what is often called the ‘creative class’ in Russia, the well-educated, urban middle classes. They saw their hopes for change disappointed.
How has the human rights situation changed over this period?
The Kremlin responded to the 2012 protests by re-ideologising politics: an emphasis on ‘traditional values’, the adoption of a law against homosexuals, and the intensified repression of the protest organisers. This was also related to ‘Maidan phobia’. Since then, more than 30 different laws have been passed that restrict civil liberties even further. And now, after a long period without, political prisoners are again being held in Russia: about 150 at present according to human rights organisation Memorial. This has also led to a new wave of emigration. The human rights situation is so bad and there is no improvement in sight. Rather the opposite, in fact.
What can the EU do about this? Especially if supporting human rights organisations is seen as trying to influence Russian domestic politics?
Any help that is given is seen as an attempt to exert influence, but the very worst thing to do is to say nothing. Raising awareness is still the best means we have. People like Oleg Sentsov can’t just disappear silently into some dungeon. Sentsov is a Ukrainian film director from Crimea who protested against the annexation and is now sitting in a camp in the far north. It must be repeated again and again, also during contacts with government officials: these people have to be released. There is, of course, no guarantee that this will work, but the Russian leadership doesn’t like being pilloried, and as a result, every now and then you manage to help individual people. Moreover, we shouldn’t support Russia’s isolationist tendencies. Contacts and exchange at all levels, especially person-to-person, are always good. The World Cup in Russia was certainly very positive in this regard; it was a breath of fresh air for the country. In a more concrete sense, I am still convinced that the EU should dare to go against the grain and introduce a visa-free regime for Russian citizens. That would deprive the Kremlin’s argument that ‘Westerners don’t want us’ of much of its effect.
One more question: Putin has now been in office for almost 18 years. What’s the outlook as far as successors are concerned?
That’s Putin’s problem. He can’t go because the political system depends on him – he personally guarantees its functioning and stability. Everything that is currently being said or written about Putin’s succession is mere speculation. The Kremlin is a black box and in recent years its workings have become even more opaque than they already were. Nobody knows who Putin’s successor will be, or when Putin will resign – probably not even Putin himself. The next general election will be held in 2024, when Putin will be 72 years old. That’s an age at which you can do it all over again. And Putin still has six years left in office; a lot can change in six years.