The West is not ready for Russia’s nuclear blackmail.
The West will be extremely surprised in five years’ time when they see what Russia’s “new society” looks like, claims Alexandr Morozov, a Moscow political scientist and editor-in-chief of noted online journal Russkiy Zhurnal who worked in the Kremlin and handled planning domestic policy in the early 2000s, in this interview with Diplomaatia.
Last autumn, you wrote in Russkiy Zhurnal (russ.ru) that there was a project in the making in Russia to create a “new society” which is in its essence a “very dangerous social organism”. Why?
There are three essential factors here that influence the future of “the new society”. Firstly, the situation is similar to the 1930s in the Soviet Union, because there is a whole new generation that can be called “Komsomols” [members of the youth division of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. They were not particularly noticeable while the political direction remained unchanged. They support the annexation of Crimea, they support a policy of deterrence, they are the “new patriots”. (Morozov stresses that this term must be used in quotation marks.—JP) This is their time, this is their chance of a lifetime. It is clear now that the liberals, or, better still, supporters of the reforms, stand no chance. But the “Komsomols” will stand out and must get their bonus points for it. They are up to 35 years old, their whole knowledgeable life began when Vladimir Putin had already come to power in Russia. (That is 15 years ago.—JP)
The second factor is that there is no point in hoping that Putin will somehow turn back. Some of Russia’s intelligentsia seem to think for some reason that they are being shown a “bad movie”, which will come to an end and then they will be shown a “good movie”. It is actually clear that the move Putin made (the annexation of Crimea, hostilities in East Ukraine and the sharp conflict with the West—JP) does not envisage any turning back. The Germans and Angela Merkel have already understood that this will last for a long time, for years. Even if we were to assume that Putin himself wanted to say “alright, we took Crimea, but let us now return to normal life, let us busy ourselves with reforms and society, develop science and culture”—this cannot be; the turn has already taken place and he must play the part of a reactionary for his remaining time in power. The ”Komsomols” will support him in this.
The third factor is that Russia will evolve into Chávez’s Venezuela (Hugo Chávez, former president of Venezuela—Ed.). Half a million educated Venezuelans emigrated. Chávez died, but nothing changed, the regime has still been preserved. If you are not happy, go ahead—the door is open! This factor will have a huge impact, because we can see clearly that the intellectuals—or, in broader terms, the educated classes in general—do not want to struggle in Russia, they cannot fight the power. They prefer to leave in this kind of situation. This is not, however, the 1930s; this is not the Soviet Union with its isolation and no way to leave the country.
These three factors are now coming together and are, in my opinion, the basis for creating the “new society” in Russia.
In my opinion, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia seemingly moved towards the development of a standardised European political thinking and society for 25 years. It was thought that if Russia had a market economy, democracy would still win in the end, although developing step by step; freedom of speech would also develop, and so on. All Western countries probably had such hopes. Yes, the current regime in Russia is not the best but it will surely change over time, when the elite will form closer ties with the West, where their money is and where their children study. In reality, we see the emergence of a real post-Soviet society. The West will be extremely surprised in five years’ time when they see what this society has become following current developments.
If we were to try and find a parallel from history, then which society will this “new Russia” resemble?
It would resemble Salazar’s [António de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal’s dictator from 1932 to 1968] regime in Portugal rather than Mussolini’s—a corporate society where loyalty is highly regarded. It might also be seen as a sort of Russian version of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus, only a much more aggressive and energetic society than today’s Belarus or the Portugal of the past. The difference from pre-war Italy is that Putin is not forming a party or creating a national ideology in the classical sense. Of course there is United Russia, but it doesn’t mobilise anyone, they are not like the Nazi party in Germany or the Fascist Party in Italy. Obviously, it cannot be ruled out that these new “Komsomols” want such a strong party or a movement that would be guided by patriotism and would implement the idea of Russia’s special direction.
How dangerous will this new Russian society, without any clear ideology, be to the rest of the world?
It will not be a threat to the world. First and foremost, it will become a threat to itself; it consumes itself because it degrades.
But if this society had a stronger ideology, would it be more successful?
Yes. Although Putin tries very hard, and his people try very hard, it is actually obvious—something that many also understand in the West—that all his talk about the special role of Russia, about its special civilisation, is meant for domestic consumption. Putin’s anti-Americanism is not a sufficient ideology in itself—unlike communism—it will not be successful anywhere in the world apart from Russia. Communism, or, indeed, Islam are nevertheless such ideologies that can become dangerous at some point.
Why do you think that Putin’s anti-Americanism cannot be successful outside Russia?
It might even be, and Putin has actually achieved some success in Europe. Because what is Putin doing in Europe at the moment? He is carrying out an election campaign of sorts, as if he had decided to run for president of Europe. He is turning to the European voters or the European people over the heads of the European states’ leaders, so that they support his policies. It has even been partly successful, because we can see that part of the population in Europe believes him.
How has Putin achieved this? Can we say that the Kremlin’s overseas propaganda via Russia Today has been successful to a degree?
Yes, through propaganda Putin’s voice and opinions are heard not only on television but also in social media. I still think that anti-Americanism alone is not enough because, when things get serious, the European establishment will, despite everything, lean on the concept of assuring common security, and the US has an essential part in this. Although there is an anti-American tradition in Europe, everyone actually understands that it is simply not possible to secure the safety of Europe without the US. That is why I believe that Putin does not actually have a good prospect of influencing Europe.
Putin has another very powerful way to influence Europe apart from Russia Today—nuclear weapons—and this possibility is discussed in Russia more often and more publicly. Do you believe that Putin might take things that far? (Kremlin propagandists Dmitry Kiselyov and Mikhail Leontyev, as well as Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky, have talked about using nuclear weapons.—JP)
[Morozov thinks about this for a long time.] I believe so. Why? Because we can expect anything from Russia at this point. Until the Crimean incident, nobody would have said that nuclear blackmail by the Kremlin would be possible. This [the annexation of Crimea] was such a radical step.
What kind of situation would occur in today’s context if Russia blackmailed the West with nuclear weapons?
I can imagine such a situation—hypothetically, of course. For example, Latvia is in quite a complicated situation. On one hand, Latvia is a member of the European Union and NATO, and belongs to the common security system of Europe. On the other, from the viewpoint of Putin and the part of society that supports him, Latvia as a country has been unsuccessful. From their perspective, Latvia is in an even worse situation than Ukraine. There are many Russians living there, many of whom are not citizens. The economy is weak and still largely dependent on Russia. Let’s say that Russia carries out certain activities there that lead to a change of government. The West should definitely react to that, but we can already see that the possibilities to react are limited. Military action by the West is not possible. It is very easy to imagine in such a situation that mutual blackmail will begin—not war, but military blackmail. The West needs to do something, for example, shift its military strategy. And I can clearly imagine that, as a response to that, nuclear weapons will appear in Putin’s rhetoric.
Is such rhetoric possible in the light of what is happening in East Ukraine?
No. I do not see events escalating in Ukraine, at least not to that level [leading to nuclear blackmail].
When you were talking about the factors creating the “new society” in Russia, you mentioned emigration. Does that also mean that part of the Russian elite is simply forced to leave?
This situation, isolation, will last for a long time and everyone must choose a position. It is not possible to be inside the system—whether close to power, in a large business or holding any role in the establishment—and not loyal. Everyone must express the utmost loyalty. There can only be one position. It will not be possible to choose between different viewpoints anymore. This means that people like Vladimir Yakunin [president of the Russian Railways company] or Nikolai Patrushev [former director of the FSB, now Secretary of the Security Council of Russia] will start to play an ever bigger role, for they are the most loyal and persistent representatives. All the rest must follow their lead. There used always to be two centres of power in the Kremlin—“falcons of war” and “doves of peace”—but there will be no “doves” anymore. Of course, there will always be people in the country’s economic sector who understand how the world economy works, but their voices will become ever weaker.
If there were to be only one centre of power left, what would that mean for governing Russia in practice?
We can already see how the centre of operational power has moved from the president’s administration to the Security Council and its apparatus—or, at least, they have become equal in power. The president’s administration always used to be the clear centre of power. The apparatus of the Security Council is constantly growing at the moment. They have developed new analysis departments that did not previously exist, which are preparing speeches for the management.
You said that many in Europe, including in Germany, already understand clearly that Putin will not restart or reverse his policies. Who in Europe has not yet understood this?
It is clear that there are three groups of countries in Europe, according to what they think about Russia: countries that lie between Russia and Germany, Germany itself, and, thirdly, countries that lie to the west of Germany. About half of the countries from the first group hope to somehow maintain cooperation with Putin: for example, first and foremost, Slovakia, but also Hungary and the Czech Republic. Germany has been given the task of resolving the situation. The countries in the third group do not really care. France has taken no clear position, and neither has the UK. Maybe it is clear even to them that Putin will not turn back any more, but they could not care less because they expect—and not without grounds—that Putin will fall into the hole he is digging.
Let us return to this “Komsomol” generation, as you called them. Considering all the youth movements created by the Kremlin in the past, like Idushchie Vmeste and Nashi, could we say that the Kremlin and the former ideologist Vladislav Surkov were already building a generation extremely loyal to power years ago?
Not from the very beginning because, until 2003, Putin and his confidants did not feel secure. He was still thought of as being under the influence of “the family” [the confidants of Boris Yeltsin]. Putin’s people were already demolishing NTV [the biggest independent TV channel at the time], but it was still a fight for power that they did not yet have. They did not yet have certainty because Yeltsin’s bankers were in charge of many decisions, and leading the economy was in old hands.
So what period was the most definitive for creating today’s so-called platform?
In reality, as we see it now, everything began in 2003–04. It should also be noted that, until Alexandr Voloshin [chief of the Russian presidential administration] was replaced with Surkov, the situation in the Kremlin was completely different. When Voloshin left after the capture of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Surkov replaced him, this experiment started. I find the period of 2004—05 extremely fascinating. Many very important processes began then: Seliger camps were organised, Yuri Kovalchuk and Alisher Usmanov began buying up the media, Gleb Pavlovsky created the publishing house Europe, and the sytem of foreign political propaganda was created.
We can see that a lot of what was going on back then was experimental; many future ideological measures were tried out and practised in the Seliger camps. Society thought “let this small, random group of youths do what they want, let them be”. No one could foresee back then that, ten years later, all adults would also be partly involved in this ideology—one where Russia is a great country that lost the Cold War and must now seek revenge. Opposition politicians were called traitors, first in the Seliger camps and now in public.
Do you believe that the Kremlin and Putin were planning revanchist plans such as we saw last year since the early 2000s?
There was no such plan back then, obviously. Putin only had ideas in those days. One important idea was that, since large Russian companies were insufficiently capitalised, they needed to be capitalised. It was difficult to argue with that, because Russia’s largest companies were indeed little appreciated back then or had not even gone to the stock market. Most of them launched their IPOs [Initial Public Offering] after 2005 on the London stock exchange. Basically, the purpose was to make Russia a strong part of theglobal market.
Putin’s second essential idea was sovereignty. He said “we have 5,000 km of borders, but their infrastructure is in a bad state”—for example, with vast Kazakhstan. What he meant was classical sovereignty, in order to be able to protect our borders.
I remember well that the now highly relevant aim of Russkiy Mir was completely marginal back then. It was an innocent idea at that time; why shouldn’t we propagate Russian culture around the world while expanding economically? I remember those discussions well. Nobody was planning to occupy or annex anything back then. People said how unfortunate it was that the Soviet system of cultural centres had fallen apart, and that it should be restored; Russian should be taught there again, concerts should be held there, and so on. All of this was quite innocent in the beginning, but the problem was that Chekists came to power alongside Putin and those overseas cultural centres quite quickly began filling up with former and current employees of the FSB.
For example, ten years ago Dmitry Rogozin [the current Deputy Prime Minister, in charge of the defence industry] and his Rodina party were considered marginal and problematic in the Kremlin. Putin did not know what to do with them, because Rogozin was causing concern in the Kremlin with his nationalism and was undermining Russia’s reputation in the West. But the Kremlin needed to capitalise the economy very quickly back then.
There must be some events that did not seem important at the time but have a completely different meaning today. Can you give an example?
For one, it is difficult to hush up the fact that, in 2008, the Kremlin’s political managers went to Luhansk Oblast in Ukraine and eight other regions that would form the envisaged Novorossiya [New Russia] in order to talk to the locals about political perspectives. Or, to be more accurate, in order to find out what would happen to people’s frame of mind if those regions were to get out from under Kiev’s control. The people of Luhansk, Donetsk and Nikolajevski remember this now and draw the conclusion, “I see, the Kremlin was planning something even back then”. However, people thought differently then: “So some experts came, asked about people’s opinions, so what?” I know, of course, that the Kremlin was not planning anything then.
But what were they planning then? Why were they asking about people’s opinions in East Ukraine?
Simply because different organisations in Russia were always compiling reports or analyses for different scenarios. Some wrote that we have to behave in a certain manner and others that we should behave in another. The military has scenarios for every possible version. So they went there, talked to people and wrote analyses, but this did not mean that the proposed suggestions had to be carried out. We cannot conclude from this that Putin decided to join Crimea with Russia at that stage.
So when did he decide, in your opinion?
It was an impulsive decision, although most US and NATO analysts will certainly be reluctant to agree with that. Because then we would have to admit that, after such an impulsive decision, Russia has the ability to create an infrastructure very quickly to carry it out.
And that would be a very disturbing thought, would it not?
Putin creates uncertainty and vagueness for the West. It is not without reason that many refer to Putin’s similarities with Adolf Hitler in this respect. Putin is obviously not a Nazi, but he creates tension by creating this uncertainty where no one can be sure when he will be satisfied and stop. He is doing that deliberately.
The Russian economy is already in deep crisis, which could even get worse. If this crisis turns out to be long and deep, how would this affect Putin’s power?
The drums of patriotism will be beaten ever harder, there is no doubt about that. The “new Komsomols” will fight for that. The official propaganda will constantly insist that the West is destroying the Russian economy deliberately and that the whole society must face this together and be ready for sacrifice, because the West wants to take away our oil, our gas, our natural resources. Actually, this is already being said, but not yet very widely and publicly.
Of course, the average reader of Komsomolskaya Pravda [Russia’s best-known tabloid, extremely loyal to the state] already thinks like that, but their convictions will be expanded. Do you remember 1975, when almost everyone in the world was the enemy of the Soviet Union? The events of last year have shown that it is not necessary to switch off the Internet or create a new Iron Curtain like before, because the people believe everything the Kremlin wants them to believe anyway.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.