The Beginning of Putin’s End?
Interview with Jerzy Bahr, former Polish ambassador to Russia. Interviewer: Bartosz Marcinkowski
BARTOSZ MARCINKOWSKI: Popular support for Vladimir Putin in Russia has reached a new high, more than 80 per cent, following the annexation of Crimea. In your view does today’s Russia equal Putin?
JERZY BAHR: I think that in history, there are moments when the path of a leader’s personal career and greatness converge with the path of the people and they begin to share a special connection and chemistry. In this case, Putin’s support of 82 per cent that you mentioned can be seen as something he had anticipated before annexing Crimea. I do not think that he could have achieved this in any other circumstance. At the same time, however, such high support for a leader in the context of a very sensitive issue, such as territorial integrity and the flagrant violation of international law, will not last long. This chemistry runs out very quickly.
I am deeply convinced that in the future, history books will describe this moment as the beginning of Putin’s end. This is absolutely clear to me. At the same time, I know that Putin’s actions in Crimea responded to the expectations of many Russians. This is because in recent years, the Russian society has been exposed to many remarkable transformations, tensions and changes which generated a large number of frustrated people. They either did not have a chance to become successful, or they were forbidden to do so. This is how the transformation in Russia looks like. Now, these people want some sort of compensation. From the point of view of the traditional Russian mentality, territorial expansion can been considered as some kind of compensation.
You have just made a very poignant statement, that the annexation of Crimea and the Ukrainian crisis are the beginning of the end of Putin. Would the end of Putin’s rule also mean the end of “Putinism”, or should we expect another Putin to emerge?
Let me answer it this way. First, the political system in Russia is shaped in a vertical way. If it shakes at the top, it will totter also at the bottom as well as in many other places. Second, if the system shakes, it shakes because something is not functioning properly and new factors come to light even if they were not visible before. Nobody expected that the effect of the recent events in Ukraine would bring NATO’s recovery, the United States’ return to Europe and the fact that we have started to develop a new approach in energy policy. A real search for alternatives to Russian oil and gas has now begun. Altogether, if continued dynamically, this will mean major problems for Putin and the whole system he has created. But of course, when talking about Russia, we have to keep in mind that this process may take many years. It is not going to be within a year, but will last much longer.
Can a decrease of Putin’s personal popularity and a threat to his position in the Kremlin be the beginning of Russia’s pro-western track?
It is difficult to say since we do not know exactly the components of this situation. For sure we can say that if Russia makes an attempt to open to the West it would immediately meet a very positive response. The West is not only highly pragmatic in its actions, but also greatly sympathetic to Russia. The paradox of this situation is that Russia did not take advantage of this opportunity and refused to become a part of the western world. It has chosen a completely different way instead.
You’ve mentioned that Putin’s fall may take a long time. How should the West engage with Russia? Is it better to act decisively on steering the course of events or wait until the situation changes by itself?
I cannot answer this question because we are now in an extremely dynamic phase. We do not know yet what this phase will bring us. This is like an eternal dilemma, which is always considered in Poland: “will they invade us or not”, but this time it refers to Ukraine. The fact is that the invasion, or lack thereof, historically repeats itself. Our room for manoeuvring strictly depends on the developments in Ukraine. It is difficult now to prophesise because prophecies in politics are always very dangerous. Prophecies referring to Russia’s future and politics are even more dangerous.
In Putin’s propaganda, the West is often presented as a depraved world where traditional values are dead. On the other hand, Russia seems to be presented as a hope for the revival of tradition, family and even Christianity which are endangered by the Brussels-produced nihilism. Do average Russians really see Europe through the prism of these clichés?
The answer to this question is not an easy one. Let’s start with how many people in Russia know anything about Europe or how many of them have had an opportunity to travel to Europe. This is pretty straightforward: if you have never been somewhere or you know very little about it, your main source of information is television. Thus, what is presented on TV becomes your image of reality.
There are two types of stereotypes worth mentioning here: stereotypes created at the bottom and stereotypes created at the top. The first ones appear in society, they are natural in a way. The second ones, particularly today, are shaped and renewed by the mass media. The Russian media are currently producing these stereotypes on a very large scale and this is appalling. The Russian media cannot be seen as a source of information anymore, but rather as “pages of hate”, full of pure nonsense.
The effects can be observed in places where the contacts between nations are more intense. The best example today is the small border traffic between Russia’s Kaliningrad region and north-eastern Poland. There we can examine how the Ukrainian crisis has influenced the mutual perception of Russians and Poles. This is a very fascinating issue and it has yet to be researched. The basic feeling that I see in this situation is a feeling of uneasiness. We all could go forward, but we are heading backward instead.
What you have said does not sound very optimistic. Let’s maybe look at the problem from a different, more optimistic, position. What kind of Russia, do you think, Europe needs?
First of all, it is not only a question of Europe. Russia is not solely a European problem, it can be seen as a global issue. We have to remember that not only Europe, but also the whole world needs Russia. This is what we all should learn. It means not to limit Russia to the European courtyard because there really is not enough space for it. Russia’s needs, Russia’s voice and Russia’s greatness – literally and figuratively – is something that exceeds Europe.
Europe has now many other problems, also problems with itself and we should be aware that the future place of Europe on the international arena might be less significant than it has ever been in the past. For Russia, Europe is not a point of reference; it’s just a piece of a puzzle. Thus, the answer to your question needs to contain a global element as we would like to see Russia playing the role of an actor that brings peace to the world and a sort of gigantic field where the future of modernity could be tested. At this moment, it is unfortunately only wishful thinking because we are not in the future now. Unfortunately, we are in pluperfect time, hoping that Russia will recognise the grammar of the contemporary world.
Jerzy Bahr is a Polish diplomat and between 2006 and 2010 he was ambassador to Russia. Previously he was the head of office of national security.
Bartosz Marcinkowski is an assistant editor with New Eastern Europe.
This interview took place during the conference “Nation’s & Stereotypes: 25 Years After”. Organised by the International Cultural Center in Krakow.