“You have to understand that Putin can do anything and have anything done, since he has completely unlimited power. However, he conceals his plans, and won’t let them be guessed.”
In an exclusive interview with Diplomaatia, Maria Lipman—expert at the Carnegie Moscow Centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—claims that European leaders allowed the Kremlin to drag them into a dirtygame which only brought momentary advantage and has resulted in an extremely high risk of Ukraine falling apart.
One of the keywords used by the Kremlin in the conflict that has been surrounding Ukraine for several months is “our space”, or “Russian space”. Presumably they are talking about the territory of the former Soviet Union. Is the wheel of history going backwards again? If so, what could be done to stop it?
In general, I do not believe in the theory that there is any kind of returning to the past in history. It does not work that way. It has been more than 20 years since the Soviet Union dissolved, and the situation has changed. During the Cold War, the border between the two worlds went through Germany. At the moment it is absolutely clear that Russia is opposed to a situation where the frontier between its sphere of influence and that of the West would already run along the Russian border. Where should the border lie? What does Russia consider to be a necessary or sufficient buffer for itself? Would it be enough if Ukraine and Belarus were the buffer zone? Clearly, Russia’s “our space” encompasses the area where the Russian language is spoken—an area that shares a “common historical development”. Western Ukraine, which has a completely different history, is clearly not a part of this space.
Russia is a very multinational country. How safe (or unsafe) is this constant talk of “our/Russian space” for Russia itself?
It is a dangerous formulation that could lead to internal ethnic tensions in Russia. Using expressions like this is already very close to a governmental Russian nationalism. Certain tendencies towards this direction are already visible. There has been mention of arguments that we are going to protect “our compatriots”, “speakers of Russian”, or “ethnic Russians”. These are very threatening goals. Nobody knows just yet what this protection will be like. In addition to Estonia and Latvia, there are also compact ethnic Russian communities in Northern Kazakhstan. [Although Russians make up 21 percent of Kazakhstan’s population, there are many districts in Northern Kazakhstan where Russian-speaking people constitute more than 69 percent of the population—JP.]
We can see from the case of Eastern Ukraine that the success of separatism definitely takes people who actively support joining Russia, who do not see their country of residence as their own country that has taken sufficient care of them.
Everyone blames Russia for the Ukraine conflict, but what did the West do wrong?
If we look at the few months that preceded the crisis in Ukraine, European politicians let themselves be pulled into a zero-sum game where there are no winners. Russia led the game and Europe got pulled in.
In my opinion that was already a huge, short-sighted mistake. It seemed like Western politicians forgot what Ukraine is and what [it] means to Russia; that Ukraine needs to be handled with caution, and action should be taken with a long-term perspective in mind and not to try to tug the rope to their side immediately. I am talking about how the European Union acted after Viktor Yanukovych backed out of the Association Agreement at the last minute. European politicians somehow very artificially found their way into the conflict that escalated in Ukraine after Yanukovych’s refusal. By doing that, they lost all kind of political and diplomatic perspective.
Nevertheless, how can the EU’s light-minded action in Ukraine be explained, if anyone with any interest in politics understands that Russia will not let Ukraine out of its sphere of influence that easily?
It appears to me that European politicians completely forgot about reality, history and geography, and wanted to win a small game. So, since Yanukovych refused to sign the deal and some Ukrainians protested against this, we could now support these people, visit them on the Maidan, give them piroshki and in this way pull Ukraine back to our side. I think that European politicians got wound up in a dirty game that only provided momentary advantage, instead of keeping in mind the reality of which everyone is aware following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It has been especially clear during Putin’s era that for Russia it is absolutely unacceptable that the Western sphere of influence should extend right up to Russia’s borders. The last time the Kremlin expressed this concern in a very serious manner was in 2008, when NATO was planning to grant Ukraine and Georgia the MAP [the Membership Action Plan, an assistance programme for potential NATO member countries–JP]. Putin got what he wanted back then, but Western politicians also used their common sense and did not provoke Russia.
Yes, I completely agree with you that it was clear—Russia will not let go of Ukraine. This does not sound very nice because Ukraine is an independent country, but this is the reality and it needs to be taken into account and dealt with delicately, in cooperation with Russia.
No one has said that it is easy to work with Russia—on the contrary, Russia did everything possible to make cooperation difficult. All this does not take the responsibility away from President Yanukovych. He did a lot for his country to be in this horrible state today.
Could it be said, then, that the EU wanted to teach Putin a lesson but instead learned a lesson itself?
I am not sure as to how much the EU wanted to teach Putin a lesson. It is more like that it wanted to take advantage of the protests and convince itself: “Oh, Ukraine does indeed want to be with us, not Russia”. It wanted to bring Ukraine closer to Europe but not make it a member of the EU. This did not work out. It could have never worked out this way. Instead, the result is that those in Kyiv right now do not control their own country and Ukraine is at an extremely high risk of falling apart. It is clear to everyone that this risk has never been as high as it is right now. Ukraine has never been a homogeneous country, but until now Ukrainian politicians—whether more or less corrupt, smarter or less smart—at least managed to keep the country from falling apart. Yanukovych did not succeed. Now he is sitting in Russia and looking at how, with Russia’s participation, his country is falling to pieces.
Putin is doing now what he has wanted to do all along—obtaining a solid guarantee that neither the EU nor NATO will approach the Russian border through Ukraine. In this sense Ukraine is a victim of Russia’s political aims.
Most probably Ukraine within the borders it has had for the last nearly 25 years will cease to exist. Crimea is, of course, already gone but we will probably witness other dramatic events as well.
Could the conflict in Ukraine have been avoided in any way?
Could the First World War have been avoided? Events like these always have a chain of reasons.
To put it briefly, it seems to me that a lot can be blamed on the politics of President Yanukovych, who turned out to be a very poor, short-sighted politician.
You pointed out that the West, and more specifically the EU, has not used its common sense very much lately when acting in Ukraine. If the EU were to finally use this common sense, then how should it act?
It seems to me that it is too late to use common sense now. As is unanimously agreed, this is the most serious crisis since the end of the Cold War. This is no longer about common sense but about how to minimise losses as much as possible.
Besides, it has come to Putin achieving a situation where the West reacts to Russia’s actions, not the other way around. The West does not know what Putin’s next step will be, what he plans to do next. Up to now, in all his time in power, Putin has been the one to react in relations with the West. Every time Putin saw the West’s politics as unfavourable for Russia, he tried to oppose them. Sometimes he succeeded, at other times not very much.
He succeeded, for example, when in 2008 NATO did not grant Ukraine and Georgia the MAP. He was successful with Syria, where he managed to make the West give up on military intervention. He did not succeed, for example, in Libya. But Putin’s politics were always like this, so as to create obstacles for the West.
Now the tables have turned—the West reacts to Putin. Putin has the complete initiative. Everything has become possible—even up to the point where countries in your region have to consider whether they should be afraid as well. Never since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has this question been more serious for you than it is now.
But should we be afraid, then?
I don’t know. We do not know how this crisis will evolve and be settled. It is not clear how far-reaching are Russia’s claims that “now, this is our territory, under our political and economic influence”. It is clear that the West will not, thank God, go to war with Russia in Ukrainian territory because Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Russia understands this perfectly well. No matter what kind of sanctions the West comes up with, these will not affect Russia in the short term. Even if there were to be strict economic sanctions against Russia, it would not change Putin’s politics. That is absolutely clear.
This is no longer a question about common sense but about the situation having come to a dead end. It is a very dangerous state. What makes it complicated is that the current authorities in Ukraine have little experience and they make mistakes that Russia, of course, immediately takes advantage of.
What also matters is the question whether Russia is after something else in addition to Ukraine. The most talked-about and the most obvious is Transnistria. But this is also actually related to Ukraine—does Russia want to clear its way to Transnistria through Ukraine? In that case Ukraine would be completely cut off from the sea. Nothing is stopping Russia from acknowledging the independence of Transnistria today. At the same time, we know that Putin never does what everyone expects him to do.
Russia’s propaganda machine keeps repeating “our space” over and over again. Let us assume that events go as badly as possible from Ukraine’s point of view and that Eastern Ukrainians are indeed incorporated into Russia. To what extent is Russia actually economically prepared to swallow up another “our space” after Crimea?
It is still a very big question whether Russia even wants to incorporate Eastern Ukraine. After all, the situation with Crimea was unique. It was geographically easy to isolate from the rest of Ukraine; the majority of the people there really wanted to live as a part of Russia; and Russia and its people have always considered reuniting Crimea with Russia to be a reestablishment of historic justice etc.
All of this does not apply to Eastern Ukraine. The Donbas would more likely be a burden to Russia. Reconstructing the backward coal industry alone would be a very tough economic, political and social challenge for Russia. It would take an iron, ruthless ruler like Margaret Thatcher to do that. So it is not obvious at all. Besides, Russia does not necessarily have to take over the territory—it could be merely controlled and turned into a so-called grey area.
Another quasi-country like South Ossetia, Abkhazia or Transnistria would thus be created—and that would be the worst option for the people of Eastern Ukraine. Or perhaps not?
It certainly means nothing good for the population if a region is unstable. There are already voices saying that it is actually better for Ukraine that Crimea joined Russia and that Ukraine is better off without Crimea. But the Ukrainian economy would be better off without the Donbas as well.
People keep forgetting that in such a situation there is always a very important psychological aspect. For a nation and a country, it is always a blow against sovereignty to lose even the smallest, least important territory, because it is a sign of not being able to defend your territorial integrity.
So, for example, Russia defends its territorial integrity with utmost seriousness—take the Kuril Islands as an example. The Kuril Islands have no economic assets but holding on to them is a matter of principle for Moscow. It is an absolute principle for the Kremlin—“this is our territory and we will not give it away”.
Thus, in any case it is also bad for Ukraine if such an unstable region were to come about because then it is not clear whether you have control over your territory or not. It is a very serious matter, because it will immediately raise questions like should the mines be left as they are and who has to pay the pensions and deal with other social issues. Luckily it has not come to questions like this yet. For now we cannot even rule out a military scenario when it comes to Eastern Ukraine.
In the light of the strong tightening of the internal reins in Russia over the past few years and the current desire to change the power relationship, at least with Europe, is it reasonable to talk about Putin’s long-term plan—to the end of his presumed fourth term, which would be in 2024?
You know, it is not possible to foresee much. Putin is a master of the tactical game, as he is demonstrating very well in Ukraine right now. Even if he does have a long-term plan, he has not revealed it yet. Russia is slipping into a growing economic crisis, which has unknown consequences, and because of this alone it is difficult to make long-term plans.
What can be said at the moment, however, is that Russia has clearly chosen an anti-Western course, in the economic sense too—Russia has to be prepared to redirect itself from highly developed Western markets to less-developed Eastern markets.
[In 2013 Russia’s trade with the EU amounted to $410 billion (€301 billion). EU companies have invested $290 billion (€213 billion) in Russia, while in turn Russia has invested $80 billion (€59 billion) in the EU. The corresponding numbers with China are: $90 billion (€66 billion) for trade (oil accounts for 50 percent of Russia’s exports); Chinese companies have invested $5 billion (€3.7 billion) in Russia and Russian companies $850 million (€624 million) in China–JP.]
This is a clear choice—it is the course of anti-modernisation. Modernisation was a clear goal for Russia when Dmitri Medvedev was president [2008–2012]; it became basically a mantra, and everyone kept repeating: modernisation, modernisation, and modernisation once more.
The current course is clearly different: this approach will “freeze” Russia’s dependence on oil and gas production. There will be no other sources of economic growth for Russia. In today’s world, it is impossible to modernise your economy without active cooperation with the West, the centres of high-level technology and innovation.
Perhaps something will change in five years’ time or maybe even in 2018—we do not know; predicting this in today’s Russia is out of our league.
In February, Putin said at a meeting with his government that Russia’s current economic model had exhausted itself. Have you gathered what kind of new economic model Putin has proposed?
Putin has mentioned that before, but this was the most definitive announcement. Despite that, he did not propose any other model. He talked about how Russia would have to rely more on its reserves and find ways to save resources. Of course, the saving will come—there is no getting out of that in the current economic situation.
How much will the coming economic crisis affect Russia’s internal stability?
Economic experts whom I trust claim that the economic situation will not worsen to such an extent that people would take to the streets en masse to protest against the government. The government’s reserves are indeed huge and they provide an opportunity to soften economic setbacks and deal with the so-called operational patching of local potholes. [According to Rossiiskaja Gazeta, the official Russian governmental daily newspaper, the total value of all Russian reserves was $473 billion (€348 billion) as of April this year—JP.]
There will be no economic collapse, but Russia does not have any reserves for a new economic upturn either. I am talking about at least a four- to five-percent economic upturn, which would be necessary for normal development. Russia no longer has those kinds of reserves.
There has been a lot of talk in the Baltic states during the current crisis that in order to oppose the threat from Russia we need NATO bases on our territory. What could Russia’s reaction to this be like?
It is very hard to guess Putin’s reaction. He has demonstrated several times that he leads everyone on, in the sense that his reaction cannot be predicted or guessed. Even with Crimea, nobody actually believed that the occupation would happen so rapidly and with such force.
You have to understand that Putin can do anything and have anything done, since he has completely unlimited power. However, he conceals his plans, and won’t let them be guessed.
If we talk more specifically about NATO bases in the Baltic states, then this of course unambiguously upsets Russia. On the other hand, I cannot imagine Russia going to war against NATO—at least not today.
· Maria Lipman is a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Centre and editor-in-chief of the centre’s Pro et Contra journal.
· Lipman worked as the deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian weekly magazine Ezhenedelny zhurnal (in Russian Еженедельный журнал) from 2001 to 2003.
· From 1995 to 2001 she was the deputy editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Itogi (Итоги).
· She has also worked as a translator, analyst and journalist at the Washington Post’s Moscow bureau.
· Since 2001, she has been a regular columnist for the Washington Post; Lipman’s pieces are published in the paper’s opinions section once a month.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.